Habitats for Hobbies

Winter means more time spent indoors for the majority of us. Yet with New Year’s fitness resolutions on the brain, it may be time to bundle up so you can explore the great outdoors this winter.

South Dakota offers some of the most-scenic winter landscapes in the United States, including a wide range of recreation and fitness opportunities—from hiking and hunting, to sledding and skiing, even ice skating and ice fishing (see snowy sports sidebar and links below).

Finding “Friluftsliv”

Although it’s easy to enjoy outside experiences when the weather is warmer, be open to the idea of exploring and experiencing outdoors in the winter. While the Danish word “hygge” means finding comfort indoors, the Norwegian term “friluftsliv” is finding it outside.

Translated to open-air living, “friluftsliv” (pronounced “free-loofts-liv”) and a positive winter season mindset help Norwegians rank fifth in the UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report. For comparison, the United States came in at 18th for happiness.

A 2019 paper published in the journal Nature found that spending just two hours a week in natural environments can boost well-being and improve health. It suggested recreational nature contact with parks or greenspaces like woodlands, prairies and bodies of water. When it came to beneficial exposure, the study said it didn’t matter if that time was spent in a single session or several shorter visits.

Wide-Open Outdoor Opportunities

After all the coronavirus-related quarantines and shutdowns this past year, Americans took up new hobbies and further explored their environments. For the most part, nature remained open for access, which explains why the numbers of people camping, fishing and hunting saw considerable growth.

Fortunately, there’s no need to stop outdoor adventures once the weather turns colder or snowier. In fact, in their quest to celebrate more time outdoors, Norwegians have a saying: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”

Granted, South Dakota has enjoyed a relatively mild winter so far. While many of us appreciate that weather as a blessing, winter enthusiasts often wish for more snow and thicker ice to enable their favorite outdoor activities.


Photo Credit: Sam Soholt

Ringneck Rewards

In addition to its well-known prairie vistas and open-air landscapes, South Dakota is world-famous for its hunting opportunities, especially for our state bird, the ring-necked pheasant. South Dakota proudly claims the honor of the nation’s top pheasant-producing state.

FACT: Did you know the average annual pheasant harvest the past 10 years is 1.2 million roosters?

Historically, the number of hunters in the U.S. has been steadily dropping as the next generation gets further from the sport. Yet this past year saw around 14% first-timers and 12% more women purchasing a license, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For many in South Dakota, hunting is a tradition that runs deep, spanning generations with a hunting history that’s often passed on to youth. Typically, about 70,000 resident small-game hunting licenses are outnumbered by up to 100,000 nonresidents who come to our state each year, boosting our economy with tourism income.

“We’re the nation’s pheasant capital here in South Dakota. We harvest more birds than most states even have!” said Matt Morlock, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever. Over the past 20 years, our state has seen an average pre-season pheasant population of 7.7 million, which ends up with a 52:1 ratio of birds to hunter and 9.5 birds harvested per hunter. That’s double or triple the bird counts and harvests that neighboring states can claim.

The traditional pheasant hunting season opened in early October, and is extended until January 31 with a daily limit of three roosters. Morlock encourages anyone who is curious but feels intimidated to reach out to their Pheasants Forever office who can help find them a mentor to get into the sport. “We are thrilled to see a shift to more families choosing to hunt together, bringing in women and kids to participate as well,” Morlock said.

To learn more about hunting, visit the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) website for safety courses, licensing, maps & more.

Land We All Love

Many of South Dakota’s beloved outdoor activities rely on the conservation efforts of our state’s farmers and ranchers who provide public access and beneficial habitat for wildlife of all kinds, including shelter, food sources and clean rivers and streams.

In addition to the state’s 750,000 acres of public land, South Dakota’s farmers provide 1.2 million acres of wildlife habitat. Since our state is 80% private land, the majority of hunting and fishing here occurs on acres owned by farmers and ranchers who lease it to the state’s GFP. Walk-in Access and similar programs allow year-round public access to privately owned land.

There are also programs that compensate farmers for not farming some of their land. In most cases, those acres are not ideal for producing common crops such as corn, soybeans, sorghum or wheat. Instead, landowners manage those acres for added environmental benefits and wildlife habitat.


Photo Credit: Sam Soholt

“Quality hunting needs quality habitat,” said Jim Ristau, director of sustainability at South Dakota Corn. Putting marginal acres into a perennial grass system allows the soil to restore its health over time. And “pheasants like it too, so it’s a win-win,” Ristau said. These habitats also provide homes for songbirds, waterfowl and big game like white-tail deer.

“Pheasant populations are directly dependent on the habitat that our state’s farmers provide,” said Morlock. “We’re very grateful for that relationship and encourage continued support of what makes our state so special.”

January 5th: National Bird Day


Sustainable Soils a Success

“Sustainability is a common denominator for our state’s farmers because the land is their livelihood. They don’t want to do anything to impede that so they are taking care of their land the best way they know how,” Ristau said.

Landowners benefit from expert education and assistance in designing, developing and funding habitat on their marginal acres through the Habitat Pays program. It recommends alternative practices that support improved soil health and provides resources for technical and financial assistance for implementation.

The Every Acre Counts program with SDSU is a unique partnership among several organizations to help South Dakota farmers make better management decisions regarding marginal land that could offer environmental benefits when taken out of traditional crop production.

Conservation Counts

A popular and proven program for the past 35 years, the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows landowners to enroll environmentally sensitive ag acres into perennial cover for 10 to 15 years. Available programs encourage landowners to establish grassland, trees, wetlands and pollinator habitats. Land can be leased for hunting and fishing access as well.

As of September 2020, South Dakota has nearly 1.13 million acres enrolled for just over 13,000 farms, which is the seventh-largest state. The total U.S. enrollment is almost 22 million acres. Landowners can enroll new acres or renew expiring land through February 12.

Run by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, CRP has seen significant success. Improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and removing carbon from the atmosphere are just a few of the gains made by these efforts. A supplemental benefit of providing habitat for wildlife offers opportunities for outdoor recreation and tourism to further benefit the state’s economy.

“The ultimate goal is to leave the land better than before, keeping it productive and profitable for the next generation to take over,” Ristau said.

Habitat Pays is a joint effort between the South Dakota Departments of Game, Fish and Parks and Agriculture to connect farmers and ranchers to the appropriate habitat resources and help them implement wildlife habitat where it makes the most sense to do so.

As a vast majority of South Dakota is privately owned, farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are the principal stewards of wildlife resources and the habitats in which they depend.

Cooperative relationships and collaborative approaches among landowners, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and others who enjoy and appreciate fish and wildlife resources in this state, are critical. [SOURCE: SDGFP & SD Dept of Ag]

SDSU is now selling Pheasant State merchandise at major retailers such as Fleet Farm and Scheels, as well as at Jackrabbit Central. Choose from a variety of apparel, headwear, pet accessories and related merchandise. Click the logo to shop!

Links to above topics: Birdwatching; Stargazing; Snowshoeing; Cross Country Skiing; Great Bear (Sioux Falls); Terry Peak (Black Hills); Snowmobiling; Lead's Winterfest Snowbash; Ice Fish Fest (Catfish Bay).

South Dakota farmers are long-time conservationists with a deep sense of responsibility for the land — including all its wildlife and aquatic life. Voluntary strategies include:

  • Planting food plots for pheasant, deer and other game wildlife.
  • Using shelterbelts to naturally protect crops, livestock or homes — and create significant wildlife habitat at the same time.
  • Working with researchers to help protect habitat from farm production, livestock and machinery.
  • Taking part in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays farmers rent in exchange for land set aside for wildlife habitat or left unused near waterways.

South Dakota Corn Growers believes in conservation compliance. We continue to educate and encourage our members about conservation practices we can apply to protect soil, wetlands and wildlife.