Truth be told, nobody in the upper midwest cares much about white-tailed deer. There are just too many of them. They munch on gardens during the summer and become road carnage during the winter.

Okay, deer have their fans too. But thousands of deer kills are scrapped off country roads and state highways with seemingly no impact on the numbers.

But ring-necked pheasants are another story entirely. Pheasant season in South Dakota is big money. Almost 120,000 residents and non-resident hunters participate, bringing almost $210 million into the state. The state’s 30,000 farms and ranchers open their gates to out-of-state hunters, who they frequently host and hunt with.

So when South Dakota State University, the state’s Land Grant university located in Brookings, finds that commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides may be causing congenital disabilities in white-tailed deer, it might be ho-hum news.

But when the same wildlife scientists and ecologists at SDSU says they’ve turned their attention to whether neonicotinoid pesticides might also be harming ring-neck pheasants, the whole state wants to know.

Neonicotinoid pesticides used throughout American agriculture, including South Dakota. But pheasant season can mean an extra crop payment for South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers.

Pheasant hunters from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Kansas, and Illinois, pour into South Dakota to hunt pheasants each Fall. They arrive by car and plane, lining the state’s small airports with personal jets and prop planes.

Last year, they took 828,700 pheasants. Most years, the South Dakota pheasant harvest tops 1 million. This year’s traditional season got underway earlier in October and extends to Jan.5, 2020. It began with more than 4.6 million pheasants, but the season may be off from last year.

Last March, SDSU found the commonly used neonicotinoid is the likely cause birth defects in white-tailed deer. The possibility the pesticide is harming large mammals is troubling. The deer had high levels of the pesticide in their spleens when defects were found involving smaller reproductive organs. The animals also had pronounced overbites and decline thyroid functions.

The SDSU researchers found that fawns with higher neonicotinoid levels in their spleens were smaller and less healthy than deer with less exposure to the pesticide.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren told South Dakota News Watch that neonicotinoid is supposed to be safe for “higher organisms” He questions if the findings in deer might not be “that far off” from livestock and even humans.

Lundgren, an ecologist, is the co-author of the study.

The SDSU scientists are preparing to publish the second phase of the study, which looks at the ring-necked pheasant that sustains the state’s multi-million hunting industry.

Neonicotinoid pesticides went into use in South Dakota and other farm states during the 1990s. There use grew as did the belief that they are safe for use around mammals and birds. They’ve also been popular for home and commercial landscaping uses.

But the SDSU researchers are not the only ones raising questions. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in September reported finding neonicotinoid traces in the urine of 49.1 percent of the samples collected from people involved in a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

CDC estimates half of the U.S. population has recently been exposed to the pesticide.

The SDSU deer study was published in the Journal Scientific Reports. The South Dakota researchers were following up on the 2002 work by Montana wildlife expert Judy Hoy. She dissected “roadkill” deer, finding birth defects soon after neonicotinoids were introduced.

Dr. Lundgren is also associated with the Ecdysis Foundation, a nonprofit research organization that supports sustainable farming practices. He told South Dakota News Watch that the SDSU study is evidence that farmers and scientists need to take a deeper look at pesticide use on mammals and humans.

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