History Explains Everything

A good day in North Dakota in 2012. At least, Leon looks content, and the Charles Lancaster did its job well. North and South Dakota are proud of their pheasant populations — but the future looks grim.

by Terry Wieland

It appears this will be yet another mediocre pheasant year in South Dakota, which means it will be a year any other state (except arch-rival North Dakota) would be over-joyed to have.  But not South Dakota, which takes as much pride in its pheasant numbers as others take in their football teams.

Broadly speaking, pheasant numbers have been in a steady decline for at least a decade.  This is due to a number of factors.  Some are natural:  There was the severe drought of 2012, which didn’t seem to harm the birds per se, but led to other things that did.  More about that in a bit.  Two years ago, there was severe flooding that prevented some crops being planted and others being harvested, and the effects are still being felt.

Sudden severe weather can hit specific areas, too, such as a devastating hailstorm that struck one otherwise productive piece of property during nesting season and left it bereft of birds.

Basically, though, the answer is the same as it has always been:  Habitat and the loss thereof.

Since the dreadful 1930s, Western states have gone to great lengths to create tree rows. This was intended to stop soil erosion, but they also provide cover for pheasants. Maximizing crop-growing by removing tree rows severely harms pheasant populations.

My favorite living historian, Anne Applebaum, when asked about the most common misconception regarding her field, answered “That it’s irrelevant.  In fact, history explains everything.”  Another historian pointed out that no historical battle is ever completely lost, but neither is every battle won for all time.  Such is the case with wildlife populations.

The abundant pheasant numbers of 20 years ago owed much to two things:  One was the preservation of wetlands, due largely to the efforts of Ducks Unlimited; a second was the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), wherein the federal government paid farmers to leave land fallow, allowing tall grass to grow and provide cover for birds.

The drought around 2011 caused some small wetlands to dry up, which allowed farmers who had previously preserved them to plow them under, sow them, and when nothing grew, claim compensation for crop failure.  That, at least, is how it was explained to me in North Dakota during a visit in 2012, and I saw some of it for myself.  (I am further advised it’s more complicated than that, involving brothers-in-law on compensation boards and fellow church members doing the loss assessments.  My apologies.)

In different parts of North Dakota, I also saw the cutting of tree lines to provide more sowing ground.  (Obviously, oblivious to the history lessons of the 1930s.)

As for CRP, when the program ended, farmers lost no time returning the land to saleable crops.  I know, I know — pheasants are a saleable crop, too.  But you can’t claim compensation for them under the vast welfare program the feds run for farmers who vote.  (Pheasants don’t vote, but under some current voting practices, they probably could.)

Having grown up in farm country and worked on one through my ’teens, I have a fair understanding of how farmers’ minds work.  I realize there are exceptions, but essentially here’s how it goes:  Corn prices are high, we have to plant more and cash in.  Alternatively, corn prices are down, we have to plant more to make up for it.  This cycle only gets broken when someone offers to pay them not to plant.

Land coming up for sale in the Dakotas, selling for thousands of dollars an acre, is going more and more to out-of-state investors or corporations who turn the management over to others and demand an annual return, measured in dollars, for the gratification of the bean counters.  This leads, inevitably, to loss of grassland, wetlands, and tree rows, all of which are essential for wildlife such as pheasants.

It was just such habitat loss (combined with a few other things, such as the Sharps rifle) that led to the demise of bison and pronghorns in the 19th century, to ducks a little later, and to the Dirty Thirties, the infamous decade of drought, dust storms, and Bonnie and Clyde.  History does, indeed, explain everything.

All of this is not going unnoticed by such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, and there is not much an out-of-state hunter can do except write letters to relevant state officials and join both DU and PF.  Which I would urge everyone to do.


Gray’s shooting editor realizes it’s all too easy to tell other people how they should manage their land, and after all, it’s not his living that’s at stake.  Still, he wishes pheasants could vote.