Senator John Thune's piece in this morning's Rapid City Journal (http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/opinion/thune-prairie-changes-over-time/article_5d4ee6f5-f715-5333-abe8-ad10d9f1fbf1.html) on the problem of the sharp decline in South Dakota's pheasant population was, if you'll excuse the expression, for the birds. After expending a few hundred words about how the prairie has changed over the past 150 years, Senator Thune reports that the attendees at Governor Daugaard's "pheasant habitat summit" last month were a cross-section of affected parties who were committed to "keeping South Dakota agriculture strong . . . while protecting the land and its inhabitants." Such consensus. Who could have imagined? Really, the usually supple-minded Senator Thune generally does much better than demonstrate his mastery of the obvious.
As his commentary moves on, though, Thune shows that he is in no mood to call attention to the politically-driven economic elements that have devastated our state's premier game bird population and all the economic value attached to those prized pheasants. For one thing, it must be tough explaining to his friends and neighbors in and around Murdo, where the Senator grew up, that the reason pheasant hunting revenues have collapsed in their neighborhood is his continued support of the ethanol mandate. The mandate's subsequent demand for corn has elevated prices to levels that have caused farmers throughout South Dakota and the rest of the nation's farm belt to wipe out natural habitats and plant corn, raising the country's production from around 9 to about 13 billion bushels a year.
Meantime, what had once been a $100 million plus industry created by pheasant hunters from all over the globe converging on South Dakota for a few weeks each Autumn must now be a fraction of that number. Thune tells us in his piece that he's committed to telling his colleagues in Congress that there needs to be a balance between "Commodity and Conservation Titles" in the long overdue farm bill being crafted this month. But he fails to tell us what he thinks that balance should look like. I'm sorry but this is neither leadership nor reasonable disclosure of where Senator Thune thinks that balance should and can be struck.
Fact is, somebody is likely to howl at the final resolution, and the Senator's closing cop-out promises very little from his office in the way of pro-activity. He professes that "while South Dakotans continue working hard" at a resolution, he "will continue to do his part" in Washington. My question to the Senator is, just exactly what constitutes doing your part? This all sounds to me like Senator Thune expects his constituents to do the tough political work of coming up with a compromise figure between planting and habitat acreage, which he will then present as South Dakota's proposal for national resolution. I think the Senator owes us more effort than that, namely that he should be working closely with affected South Dakotans and giving them a sense of how other farm state reps, all of them politically affected by Big Corn and its lobbyists, are seeing the possible outcomes. We're grown-ups out here. We can deal with the political facts of life.
South Dakota's international reputation as a mecca for pheasant hunters is one of our state's most valued assets. It creates a level of good will that's probably impossible to purchase. The 60% or so decline in pheasant numbers in recent years constitutes a crisis that borders on catastrophe and calls for more action than a mere promise from Senator Thune to "do his part." We need some clear indications from our entire Congressional delegation about where they think the proper ratio of planted to habitat acreage should be. Face it, we have to cut back on corn plantings to re-stock the pheasant population. So how about it, Senator Thune? Where should we start drawing the line between corn and pheasants?