SENECA, S.D. -- Birds boiled out of the slough 30 yards ahead, brown streaks against a bright blue sky.
"Hen, hen, hen, hen, hen," shouted Sal Roseland of Seneca, S.D.
A call that could be construed as monotonous or frustrating also can be music to pheasant hunters' ears. That is, if they are focused on the future of the population.
It was clear this piece of central South Dakota was in very good shape.
I held my shotgun at my side and watched the female pheasants flap and glide into the distance.
The condition of the local ground was notable these days in pheasant country. A survey this year found the South Dakota pheasant population down by 64 percent.
As corn prices have risen in recent years, farmers in South Dakota have converted about 2 million acres from grassland to crop-land.
The loss of grassland is crucial as it means less nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover for pheasants.
The high number of birds flushing all around me at the moment wasn't by accident. Roseland and his family run R&R Pheasant Hunting, which includes a lodge and guiding service.
The family manages 6,000 acres of its 18,000-acre ranch for pheasants and other wildlife. Some sections are left in grassland or wetland; others are planted with corn, alfalfa and sorghum.
"It takes the right habitat if you want birds," said Roseland, 33. All of the hens on Roseland's ranch are wild. Some male pheasants are stocked to provide more shooting opportunities for clients.
And "birds" are what generations of hunters have come to see in South Dakota, the world's pheasant hunting mecca. I've tried to make a trip every few years to "SoDak" to feed a desire for endless vistas and bountiful pheasants.
My latest sojourn west came Dec. 5-6 when I joined a group to hunt and attend the Governor's 2013 Habitat Summit. The summit, first of its kind, was called by Gov. Dennis Daugaard out of concern for the state's economy and hunting tradition.
Our Thursday morning hunting group included John Branch, a producer at CNN in Atlanta; David Hendee, outdoors editor for the Omaha World Herald; Anthony Hauck and Rehan Nana, staff members at Pheasants Forever in St. Paul, Minn.; A.J. Hoffman, of Aberdeen, S.D.; and Casey Weismantel of the Aberdeen Convention and Visitors Bureau.
We were assisted by Roseland and Bill McKeon of Faulton, S.D., as well as a bevy of Labrador retrievers. Dean Bortz of Woodruff joined the group Thursday afternoon.
The December morning dawned clear and very, very cold on the prairie. It was minus 20 degrees at first light; sun dogs swirled above the horizon.
Proper clothing, a steady hiking pace and the sight of birds helped keep the blood warm. After 20 hens flushed in the first push through corn stubble and toward a slough, a pair of red-and-green-headed birds jumped into the light.
A different call rang out: "Rooster!"
Shotguns sounded and Roseland's labs quickly brought two long-tailed cocks to hand. We saw several hundred pheasants over the next two hours, including plenty of wild and stocked male birds.
By our noon break, 24 roosters bulged from the group's game bags.
Roseland's family has lived on the land here for five generations. His ancestors immigrated from Norway and traveled west until "the wagon wheels fell off," Roseland said.
He took the group to his grandmother's homestead. The yard includes a 1947 Chevrolet truck, its body a colorful patina of prairie sun, dust and rust.
While a nearby town and railroad have vanished in the last century, Roseland's family has found a way to thrive. The pheasant hunting business is a relatively recent addition to the ranch. Roseland's father told him if he wanted to return to the ranch after college, he would have to add something of value.
Roseland studied similar pheasant hunting concessions and drew up a plan to create R&R.
"We had the land," Roseland said. "But we needed to dedicate more habitat to the birds."
Since it was founded in 2003, R&R has hosted hunters from all 50 states and several foreign countries. For Roseland, pheasants are the present and the future -- he makes habitat a priority.
The pheasant-friendly habitat also provides a home for dozens of other wildlife species -- mostly natives -- such as western meadowlarks and bobolinks.
Other landowners have different business models and have made different decisions. As corn prices have risen, many farmers say they have been forced to plant acres they had formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
On Friday we drove to Huron for the Habitat Summit.
Pheasant hunting contributes $230 million annually to the South Dakota economy and is the state's largest tourism draw, according to officials.
So when the pheasant population takes a big dip, it's serious business in these parts. As of late November, South Dakota had sold about 25,000 fewer small game hunting licenses this year, resulting in a projected loss of $2.4 million in license fee revenue and an even greater loss of business to restaurants, gas stations and hotels.
About 500 people braved subzero temperatures and filled the basketball arena at Crossroads Convention Center in Huron for the habitat summit.
The event included presentations on the history of pheasants in South Dakota, land use changes, modern agricultural production and conservation policies.
Pheasant numbers were estimated at 12 million in 2007; with loss of habitat and poor weather this year for reproduction, the South Dakota population is now likely less than 3 million.
After the morning presentations and a panel discussion, attendees broke into groups to brainstorm ideas to improve wildlife habitat. The challenge to those at the conference: come up with ways to encourage more farmers and ranchers to keep at least some wildlife habitat on their properties. The land in South Dakota is 80 percent privately owned.
After the summit, the governor announced plans to form a task force to advance recommendations.
Attendees at the event were realistic about what can be done. No salvation is expected from federal or state programs. World markets for corn and other commodities are driving prices and dwarf payments from CRP.
While R&R offers a sterling example of how habitat and hunting can be profitable, most farms will likely continue to intensively plant row crops. But improvements are possible on many fronts, according to experts such as Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice-president of government relations. Nomsen said there was a place on every farm and ranch for wildlife conservation.
Since pheasant hunting has for generations been integral to the culture and economy of South Dakota, the state offers a unique study of how policy can affect habitat and wildlife in the 21st century.
The conservation world will be watching.
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