Turning Salty Spots Sweet for Pollinators

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Pheasants Forever’s Saline Soils Initiative in South Dakota is turning salty ground into sweet spots for pollinators (oh and pheasants too)

By Andrew Johnson 

An underlying problem exists across Midwestern farmland that literally rises to the surface more and more with each passing year. It might not get the same headlines as catastrophic flooding or widespread drought, but the growing problem of saline soils costs producers millions of dollars each year throughout the pheasant belt. It's an issue every upland gamebird hunter should know.
 

A SALTY PROBLEM

Saline soils appear where an abundance of salt in topsoil inhibits plant growth and productivity. These areas become that are, biologically speaking, dead. They are often marked by patchy, white-caked areas devoid of plant residue. They occur when salts produced by sedimentary rock buried deep in the soil rise to the surface with the water table after higher-than-average rainfall amounts soak the land. The salts are left behind long after the water table subsides, inhibiting plant growth and productivity of cash crops. 

Simply stated, saline soils are bad for producers, bad for pheasants and bad for pheasant hunters, and they’re not going away any time soon, especially in the pheasant stronghold of South Dakota. 

Soil scientists from South Dakota State University recently estimated that saline soils affect 8.3 million acres of farmland in the state, most of which are found in the upper James River Valley area — a region that just happens to be home to millions of pheasants too. 

To make matters worse, irrigation practices and typical crop rotations of shallow-rooted plants such as corn and beans have only exacerbated problems associated with saline soils, says Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota.

“These soils already have a high salt content, and what happens when you farm it the same way for years and years is that a hard layer forms below the surface that doesn’t allow these salt elements to leach back down into the sublayers,” Morlock explains. “The only way to solve it is through perennial vegetation, which has a much deeper root system that breaks up that hard layer and pulls that water and salt back down into the soil column. When that happens, you gain the benefit of wildlife habitat that is also fixing soil.”

“That’s the ‘why’ behind our Saline Soils Initiative,” he states. “It’s all about returning dead acres back to sustainability.”


TAKING INITIATIVE

The Saline Soils Initiative stems from a project that began in 2015 with a $200,000 grant Pheasants Forever received from the South Dakota Habitat Conservation Foundation that resulted from then-Governor Dennis Daugaard’s Pheasant Summit, Morlock said.

The South Dakota Corn Growers Association is a key partner, providing a $100,000 matching grant upfront for the initiative and now working in tandem with Pheasants Forever.

“The original pilot program enrolled 1,040 acres in Brown, Faulk and Spink counties, and it was well-received by landowners in that region,” Morlock says. “To date, we have enrolled upwards of 3,000 acres, but there’s constant demand for it. We’d like to enroll upwards of 80,000 acres, but realistically a more immediate goal is 20,000 acres.” 

Morlock said the initiative is targeting saline soils across 33 counties throughout prime pheasant country in central South Dakota. He said eligible landowners could agree to a five-year contract where row-crop production would be replaced by a specialized blend of salt-tolerant alfalfa and sweet clover with some milkweed mixed in.

Through the program landowners receive free seed and a one-time payment of $150 per acre. Morlock said the initiative provides farmers with a financially attractive and shorter-term alternative to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which requires 10- or 15-year contracts, to increase soil health and sustainability.


A WIN FOR POLLINATORS (AND BIRDS)

“A natural goal we have with this program is to establish additional areas of nesting and brood-rearing cover,” Morlock said. “Landowners can find alternative uses for the grass, such as haying and grazing, as long as they stay away from it during nesting season. The seed is provided at no cost, and they can use the one-time payment toward planting costs for the grass seed or for whatever else they want.”

The lush habitat not only provides pheasants with key nesting sites and an ideal canopy for brood-rearing, but also serves as oases of food and cover that attract a wide range of wildlife and insects, especially pollinators.

Interestingly, the same salt-tolerant seed mix that helps heal saline soils just so happens to flower from spring through fall, providing a constant nectar source for pollinators, said Ben Lardy, Pheasants Forever’s soil-health specialist in South Dakota. 

“It’s great because it provides crucial habitat for honeybees and butterflies and other flying insects that hang out up top and do their thing,” adds Lardy. “But pheasant chicks don’t eat bees and butterflies. The real value for pheasant chicks is the insects they can find under the leaves of that pollinator habitat, or the bugs that are attached to the stem or on the ground. That’s what the chicks are eating.”

The stems of wildflowers also provide a more friendly place for pheasant chicks to run around, versus dense grass.

A more visible sign that these areas are indeed pollinator magnets occurred last fall as monarch butterflies flitted south toward winter roosting habitat in Mexico.

“These sites provide high-quality foraging habitat for migrating monarchs, and last September our sites were overrun with them,” Morlock said. “It was awesome to drive by these areas last fall, because one after another would just be covered with monarchs.”
 

A WIN FOR PRODUCERS

Pollinators and pheasants aside, both Morlock and Lardy emphasized that the initiative is helping producers turn dead acres back into sustainable parts of their operation, all while providing additional acres of wildlife habitat. 

“As far as priorities go, pheasants are probably fifth or sixth on the list of goals for this initiative,” Lardy admitted. “With this program we want to help producers first by helping the soil, which then helps the pollinators. Pheasants kind of just come with the rest of it.”

Morlock agreed, saying he believes the program can succeed and expand because its primary goal is to make producers stronger and more profitable. He said that alone has already opened more doors compared to traditional Pheasants Forever conservation efforts that might focus on habitat first, producers second.

“We’re talking with producers who aren’t hunters, but they’re worried about the sustainability of their operation,” Morlock said. “If we were just talking pheasants with this program, they might not be involved in it. It’s a classic win-win-win scenario, because everybody and everything from producers to pollinators to main street stands to benefit.” 

And what about gamebirds? Morlock says it’s simple:

“If the program is successful, the pheasants are going to take care of themselves.”

South Dakota outdoor writer Andrew is a good friend of, and regular content contributor to, Pheasants Forever.