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Habitat Pays educates ranchers, landowners about available resources

South Dakota's new one-stop habitat shop By Luke Hagen on Oct 2, 2015 at 7:10 p.m. SALEM, S.D. -- Alongside a field of tall grasses on a brisk October morning, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard preached habitat. "Habitat conservation is important...

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South Dakota's new one-stop habitat shop
By Luke Hagen on Oct 2, 2015 at 7:10 p.m.
SALEM, S.D. - Alongside a field of tall grasses on a brisk October morning, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard preached habitat.

"Habitat conservation is important in South Dakota," Daugaard said. "Through these efforts, we conserve our land, enhance our wildlife population and preserve our outdoor traditions."

Daugaard and other state officials on Friday morning launched a campaign they hope will help boost pheasant numbers by increasing the wildlife habitat in South Dakota.

The Habitat Pays campaign is an online initiative to help give landowners and ranchers knowledge of available habitat resources in "a one-stop shop," as Daugaard called it, to earn financial incentives to put their land into conservation.

The website is a joint effort between the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and Agriculture departments that went live Friday morning.

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Habitat Pays - found at habitat.sd.gov - is a result of Daugaard's 2013 Pheasant Habitat Summit and its Pheasant Habitat Work Group. The group made eight recommendations to help boost the amount of habitat in the South Dakota, and two of the recommendations combined to become the Habitat Pays campaign.

"We want farmers and ranchers to have the opportunity to make decisions to the tools that are available," said South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch. "This is about profitability and also about maintaining the heritage of having access to wildlife in South Dakota."

Expert advisers

The Habitat Pays website features information on conservation programs, habitat resources and advisers who can help distribute information about available programs.

Daugaard explained there are several federal, state and private-group programs in which landowners can enroll, but there has been limited availability for people to see what is available on one platform.

"If you don't have the time to learn about what might work best for you, we have advisers listed that you can pick and make an appointment and look at your goals and find the program that helps you meet them," Daugaard said.

The website shows 15 advisers stationed around the state who are available to work with landowners. The advisers and habitat biologists, according to the website, are experts in conservation programs and habitat planning.

"They are available to assist landowners in designing, developing and funding habitat improvements on private lands," the website says.

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Some advisers are Pheasants Forever farm bill biologists, including Mitchell-based Mike Blaalid and Chamberlain-based Jim Ristau.

"We're just trying to make it easier for today's landowners to find us and the programs they want to utilize," said Ristau, 49, Pheasants Forever's longest-tenured farm bill biologist.

Other advisers are state or federal employees. All of the advisers' contact information can be found on the Habitat Pays website.

Daugaard said all of the advisers are expected to learn all of the available habitat resources, whereas before many would focus on their area of expertise.

Prices down, habitat up?

Friday's campaign rollout was held at Steve and Cathy Peterson's farm, which is about seven miles north of Salem.

Kent Peterson, son of Steve and Cathy, is a state representative for District 19, which covers Bon Homme, Douglas, Hanson, Hutchinson and McCook counties. He said his family's farm has always remembered to save space for wildlife habitat, and the new Habitat Pays website will be a great tool for landowners to utilize.

Peterson acknowledged commodity prices have dropped in recent years, and said now is a perfect time for landowners to consider enrolling into habitat opportunities that provide financial incentives.

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"Anytime the margins get tighter and things get tougher, farmers are always looking for opportunities for things to increase the bottom line," he said. "This isn't going to make or break you, but it's going to help."

One of the factors the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit considered was higher commodity prices prior to 2013, when corn prices topped $7 per bushel, which resulted in a large amount of virgin ground getting turned over and farmed.

A study conducted by seven South Dakota State University researchers suggested that between 2006 and 2012, more than 1.8 million acres of grassland were converted to cropland, overrun by water or lost to urban development, which played a role in a significant decrease in the state's pheasant population.

The amount of acreage in the federal Conservation Reserve Program - which pays farmers to put marginal ground into wildlife habitat - has also significantly decreased. South Dakota enrollment in CRP has declined from about 1.6 million acres in 2007 to about 900,000 acres currently.

Although Daugaard was encouraged by the new Habitat Pays campaign, he was uncertain whether the state could significantly increase its CRP enrollment.

"It's really hard to know if we'll recover the CRP acres that we once had," Daugaard said. "It really does depend on commodity prices and interest that producers have in wildlife habitat. I think the Habitat Pays website will lead them to a greater interest. Most producers are aware of CRP. I would venture to guess many producers are unaware of the other programs that might be equally useful to them as an alternative."

Moving in a positive direction

Daugaard said he is pleased with the progress that's being made from the Pheasant Habitat Work Group's recommendations, which were rolled out in September 2014.

Of the eight recommendations, at least five have been fully or partially implemented.

Daugaard specifically noted recommendations that increased the cost of the federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25, and the addition of including all South Dakota counties as eligible for crop insurance coverage on winter wheat.

The state also established a long-term conservation fund that Daugaard hopes to see increase. A link to donate to the conservation fund is found on the Habitat Pays website.

Tim Kessler, of Aberdeen, donated $100,000 to the conservation fund last year to help build pheasant habitat in the state. He was at Friday's campaign rollout and was encouraged by the Habitat Pays website.

"I'm really excited that we've gotten to where we are today," said Kessler, who also was a member of the Pheasant Habitat Work Group.

Kelly Hepler, secretary of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department since December 2014, has been encouraged by the progress made by the Pheasant Habitat Work Group's recommendations and provided a positive outlook for the upcoming season, which opens statewide Oct. 17 to residents and nonresidents on private and public lands.

"It's wonderful to be a new secretary when numbers are up by 42 percent," Hepler said of the annual brood count survey that was issued in late August. "That's a reflection of where we were with the weather. But we cannot sustain that without good habitat."

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTA
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