By Dirk Lammers
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.: Pheasants once drew hundreds of weekend hunters to Fairbury, Neb., each fall, filling the 45 rooms at Randy Brown’s Capri Motel with sportsmen eager to bag their limits.
But times have changed. The native grasslands and milo crops that used to dot surrounding Jefferson County have been overtaken by corn and soy crops. Neither provides the shelter that wildlife once enjoyed. This year’s opener drew just two rooms of out-of-state hunters to the Capri, one of many businesses indirectly affected as farmers move to meet the nation’s demand for biofuel.
“We don’t have the habitat we had 20 years ago,” said Brown, owner of the motel near the Nebraska-Kansas border. “Everything’s against the pheasants right now.”
The U.S. Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners not to farm their property, has been a boon to wildlife. Since its creation in 1985, it has boosted populations of ducks, ring-necked pheasants, prairie chickens, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife by providing areas where they can feed and reproduce. The birds bring money.
Pheasant hunting has long been a pastime in the region, especially in South Dakota. Its reputation for stocked fields has made it a national draw, credited with pulling $170 million into the state economy last year. Each fall, thousands of out-of-staters arrive at the state’s airports with dogs, shotguns and plenty of blaze orange for their trip afield.
But fees paid to landowners under the Conservation Reserve Program haven’t kept pace with crop prices. Farmers found that it makes economic sense plowing into native prairies and putting land once considered marginal for farming back into production. The result throughout the nation’s Corn Belt has been fewer birds.
Since the government began requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, the states of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska have lost 2.8 million acres from the conservation reserve program, as farmers planted nearly 10 million more acres of corn, the main feedstock used to produce ethanol. About 5 million other acres are now included in other conservation programs, but nearly all that land is being actively farmed.
Over the same period, pheasant harvests in those six states dropped by 44 percent, a reflection of the downward population trend, according to data collected from state biologists.
“That is one of the reasons we are seeing such a substantial loss of wildlife,” said Dave Nomsen, of Pheasants Forever, which works with farmers to encourage practices that are good for birds. “Few programs put grass on the landscape the way the way the Conservation Reserve Program has done.”
Before the 2007 ethanol requirement, the conservation program had grown every year for nearly a decade. Farmers began leaving the program almost immediately after the mandate. Meanwhile, Congress cut money for the program, reducing the amount of farmland that could be placed in conservation.
More than 5 million acres have disappeared from the program since 2008.
“As long as you’re willing to walk a bit, you’ll find some,” said Josh Divan, a northwestern Iowa wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever. “But it’s not like it was.”