Noem’s pheasant hunting initiative needs better aim


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In a general sense, it’s encouraging to see Gov. Kristi Noem aggressively address the issue of South Dakota’s pheasant population as it pertains to hunting and the state’s economy.

Bagging birds is big business, as evidenced by the more than $130 million spent annually by out-of-state sportsmen, helping to make tourism one of the state’s most vital industries.

Sagging pheasant numbers and shrinking habitat are problems worth solving, and Noem rolled out her Second Century Initiative – a nod to the recent 100-year anniversary of pheasant hunting – as an ambitious effort to keep the Pheasant Country reputation alive.

As to the actual details of the plan, well, that’s where things have bogged down.

The governor managed to alienate some state lawmakers and sportsmen by barreling ahead with programs funded outside standard legislative or rule-making processes, with little initial public input.

On the heels of earmarking $1 million in state funds for the preservation and expansion of pheasant habitat, Noem pushed ahead with plans to address predator control as a means of stabilizing and restoring pheasant population numbers.

This took the form of a nest predator bounty program, in which the state pays a $10 bounty for the tails of raccoons, skunks, possums, badgers and red fox. 

There was also a live trap giveaway program that saw the state distribute 16,000 traps at a cost approaching another $1 million.

That money came from license revenue that could have been diverted elsewhere for habitat growth, leading to questions about the unilateral authority of the Game, Fish and Parks Department to establish the bounty program and other initiatives without sufficient review.

The legislative Rules Review Committee addressed this in early May, reverting the habitat program back to the GF&P Commission amid concerns about the bounty system, the timeline to allow trapping on public land and a publicly funded reward program for submitting habitat ideas to the state.

Faced with questions about whether a sprawling amateur trapping program will achieve positive results or whether it could adversely affect the ecosystem, GF&P officials responded not with scientific conclusions but broad declarations of trap-based family bonding.

“It’s amazing to hear some of those success stories of folks that are getting their kids out trapping and how excited these kids get when they have an animal in the trap,” said GF&P deputy secretary Kevin Robling.

Such affirmations notwithstanding, the fact that Noem’s initiative is generating friction so early in the game doesn’t speak well for the rollout, which necessitated a style and form veto by the governor in late March to fix a drafting error and clarify legislative intent.

Though Noem dismissed the notion of blue-ribbon panels during her campaign, this issue of long-term conservation and habitat growth is complex and consequential enough to make a call for experts – or at least more responsiveness to public input – an appropriate next step.

The uncertain flow of federal funding makes it imperative that South Dakota develop its own stream of appropriations to protect the state’s status as a reliable hunting destination. Perhaps the most bold and impactful initiative would be to find a form of tolerable taxation to make Noem’s Second Century vision viable for decades to come.

The governor has placed appropriate emphasis on South Dakota’s time-honored tradition as a sportsmen’s paradise, mindful of the economic benefits attached to that legacy.

For the self-proclaimed Sportsman in Chief to provide lasting leadership on the issue, she’ll need to fill in some blanks and get stakeholders on board before being so ready and eager to pull the trigger.

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