We grew up hunting. Dad took us big-game hunting, but it was my Grandma Dorris who made bird hunting such a big part of our family heritage. Still today, it’s something that brings the family together. (And how grateful this mom is for that!)

As much as pheasant season is a family tradition for us, it was our family business for years as well. When things got tight after we were hit by the Death Tax, we looked to diversify. They say: “When you don’t know what to do, do what you know.” Well, that’s exactly what we did. We focused our attention on hunting and started up a hunting lodge.

It wasn’t always easy. I remember many nights where I’d come in from the field during harvest at 10 or 11 at night and still have dozens of birds to clean and package. I’d work through the early hours of the morning, turn around, and do it all again. It was hard work, but I loved it.

Small businesses like this are spread across South Dakota, and they come alive this time of year. Overall, outdoor activities support around 18,000 full- and part-time jobs in South Dakota, providing more than $500 million of income.

With such a significant impact on our economy and our family dynamics, I’ve always fought hard to protect the state’s pheasant habitats. In the 2014 Farm Bill, for instance, I made sure we included critical protections for our region’s native grasslands in the final legislative language. We’ve seen this “sodsaver” program work, and I’m now working to expand the idea nationwide.

Those efforts become especially important in years like this. A tough winter and a devastating drought took a big hit on our pheasant populations. It’s an issue I heard a lot about throughout the summer, but especially during a recent stop in Mobridge – a community in prime South Dakota hunting territory that was hit particularly hard by the dry conditions.

This year’s pheasant counts are about 65 percent below the 10-year average. That leaves about 1.68 pheasants per mile. Still, South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen says: “Pheasant harvest could – read could – still approach a million birds: That is, if hunters come and hunt.”

The lower counts won’t be deterring our family. In fact, our son Booker is probably more excited about bird hunting this year than he’s ever been. I can’t tell you how many crack-of-dawn mornings he’s had recently, heading out early to find Hamlin County’s best spots for duck hunting. With the pheasant season now open, I’m confident he’ll be keeping us well fed.

I love that Booker’s gotten so excited about this distinctly South Dakota sport. It’s like a little piece of my Grandma Dorris still lives on through his excitement for bird hunting.

To all of the hunters reading this, have a safe pheasant season. Hope to see you out there!

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