Drought stopped a ‘boom year’ for bird population, but Pheasants Forever official encouraged by habitat interest

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s a special time of year for Matt Morlock. 

A longtime Pheasants Forever employee, Morlock has been serving as the conservation organization’s state coordination for South Dakota for the past seven years. He oversees 20 biologists who work with landowners across the state as well as work on partnerships with commodity groups, state and federal governments. His passion for pheasant hunting resonates in how he describes the traditional start to South Dakota’s most popular hunting season as “Christmas in October.”     

And much like officials with South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Park’s Department, Morlock thinks bird counts for the 2021 season will be good, but noted the drought hampered the benefits of a mild winter and good spring nesting conditions.

“It could’ve been a lot bigger year. We were set up to have a boom year,” Morlock said. “It didn’t become a bust. I think our season is going to be equal to last year, possibly a little bit better. We could’ve had bigger growth in populations if we had an ideal June.”

June 2021 was the driest June in South Dakota history, but Morlock said timely rains in early July helped the pheasant population sustain through one of the toughest stretches of the drought. The impact from the drought will be more noticeable in the types of fields hunters and dogs alike stalk for pheasants.

“They’re going to look different,” Morlock said about many public hunting spots. “I’d encourage everybody to look ahead of time and scout.” 

The SDGFP maintains a South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas for public hunting land as well as private land leased for public hunting. Morlock said many popular grass lands for hunting include walk-in areas and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) areas. Those areas were opened up for emergency grazing and haying because of the drought.

“The hunting is going to be different and that’s where the drought plays into it,” Morlock said. “Farmers and ranchers, they were looking for ways to stay afloat. They needed hay bad. Once of the places they go to is CRP.” 

The drought has resulted in an early harvest for many farmers, which will likely benefit hunters because pheasants will have fewer places to hide. During last weekend’s resident-only pheasant hunting, Morlock said he and his sons walked two CRP spots that had been cut, but birds were still around.

“Both places we put up 20 roosters in each spot,” Morlock said. “Those were walk-in areas that were hayed. They looked a little different than they did previously but they were good spots.” 

The future of habitat, CRP in South Dakota

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced 5.3 million acres of CRP was enrolled nationwide. South Dakota landowners enrolled more than 400,00 acres into CRP in 2021 and the state sits at 1.1 million acres enrolled.  

Morlock said Pheasants Forever’s conservation goal is for the state to be enrolled into 1.5 million acres for CRP land. He said CRP numbers in South Dakota have been “trending up the last couple years” and added “there’s a ton of interest out there.”

He said any producers who have looked at enrolling into the CRP program in the last three years should look again.

“The current administration has redone the payment structures on the program, which makes the program pay quite a bit better,” Morlock said. “With higher commodity prices, there’s also a lot higher CRP payments right now.” 

Morlock noted 80% of land in South Dakota is privately owned and agreed commodity markets will always have some impact on CRP enrollments. He said every producer and every operation has to find what works for them, but noted CRP enrollments have “gotten a lot closer to where it is a viable option.”

“It helps not only our bird population, but years like this with drought, having that available hay reserve for farmers to be sustainable would help everybody out,” Morlock said. “I think we’re on a real positive trajectory. I’m excited for the next 10 years. There’s high demand in the habitat programs that are out there.”

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