The pheasant opener: South Dakota’s unofficial holiday
If you’ve never been in South Dakota the day before the opening of pheasant season, it’s difficult to understand just how enormously important the date has become to the state in economic and cultural terms.
Thousands of out-of-staters are arriving in South Dakota today, all of them easily identified as hunters by the pieces of blaze orange apparel they’re required to wear in the field. They’ll arrive at airports and in cars, some with hunting dogs and all with shotguns and money to spend. They’ll start hunting when the season opens tomorrow.
It’s estimated that the pheasant-hunting season delivers a $200 million impact to the state’s economy. Best of all for the state’s bar owners, restaurateurs and retailers, it comes at an otherwise slow time of year — the time after the tourists have gone home and before the Christmas shopping season has begun.
Beyond the economic impact, the opening of pheasant season also marks a time of family get-togethers. All over the state, sons and daughters return from busy lives elsewhere to hunt, eat and visit with their families in their hometowns.
The ring-necked pheasant, which is not a native species and was introduced 101 years ago, has become so ingrained in the state’s collective psyche that South Dakotans chose a design featuring a pheasant to appear on the state quarter. That design was picked over one featuring a bison, which for decades had been the emblem of South Dakota and its Wild West heritage. But the bison represents the past. The pheasant represents the future — a future that South Dakotans hope is full of jobs generated by pheasants and the people who enjoy shooting them.
South Dakota’s immense pheasant population was created in large part by the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to convert marginal agricultural land to vegetative cover. The program’s main aim is to achieve an environmental benefit, but the densely vegetated parcels of land created by CRP are excellent pheasant habitat. Thus, the pheasant numbers have swelled and the state has done all it can to encourage enrollment in CRP and similar programs.
Of course, the booming pheasant business has had its drawbacks. Some South Dakotans are angered by the way out-of-staters have come to dominate the hunting season, and by the way those out-of-staters have usurped so much prime hunting real estatae.
The pheasant-hunting industry is also a somewhat precarious thing to count on economically, because it depends on the existence of a wild animal in large numers. No one can say that the pheasant population will remain strong forever. It depends on whether, land-use trends, proper species management techniques and other factors.
For this weekend, though, the pheasants and hunters are numerous, and many South Dakotans will revel in the tradition and the economic bonanza that is pheasant hunting in our state.
For this weekend, we are the hunting capital of the world.