South Dakota's predator bounty program will continue through 2026

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A state-sanctioned pheasant protection program that pays South Dakota youths and adults $10 for every raccoon, skunk and other predator they trap and kill will continue through 2026.

Known as the Nest Predator Bounty Program, the effort has led to the killing of more than 240,000 animals in the past five years with no scientific evidence that it is working to increase the state pheasant population.

The effort to boost pheasant and duck populations by paying trappers to kill animals that eat the eggs and hatchlings of pheasants and ducks began in 2019. The program occurs for a few months during the spring pheasant nesting season.

Little common ground can be found in assessing the merits or methods of the program, which has been described as both a wildlife-management success and an inhumane, senseless killing of wild animals.

Some state officials, including Gov. Kristi Noem, who first implemented the program, and Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kevin Robling, see the bounty program as an effective method to reduce predation on pheasants and encourage young people to get outside and take up trapping as a hobby.

Opponents argue the program is not based on science, needlessly kills animals and may upset the natural ecosystem, and improperly uses financial incentives for children and adults to trap and kill animals whose carcasses are discarded after the tails are turned in for a bounty.

In 2023, the program started in April and ended on June 29 when the limit on tail payments was reached. The 2023 program resulted in the killing of 50,800 animals — about 42,300 of them raccoons — by roughly 2,500 participants. Top counties for tail submissions were Minnehaha (5,600 tails) and Brookings (2,540), followed by Roberts (2,060), according to GFP data. The program set a record for youth participation rate with 46% of trappers aged 18 or under.

Robling acknowledges there is no data or concrete evidence to show that the bounty program has improved pheasant or duck numbers.

“As far as quantifying pheasant abundance, we don’t have any research design set up for that,” Robling said. “But we are confident that this bounty program is enhancing nest success.”

Opponents of the program are less confident that paying youths and adults to kill five species of animals is a proper way to boost pheasant and duck populations.

Gary Jensen, a Rapid City lawyer, served as chair of the GFP Commission in 2020 and voted against the resolution to extend the bounty program.

“There’s no science that supports it,” Jensen said. “The department can’t show any evidence on the bounty program and it doesn’t have any program in place to determine if it’s increasing pheasant numbers.”

The bounty program was first implemented in 2019 by Noem as part of her Second Century Initiative, aimed at protecting and expanding pheasant habitat and populations in the state.

On a basic level, the program works like this: Adults licensed to trap or youths who want to participate bait traps from April through July to capture animals, which they then typically kill with a rifle. The tails of the animals are cut off, collected and submitted to the state at designated locations. Participants are then paid $10 for each qualifying tail.

Target animals include raccoons, the most frequently bountied animals, as well as skunks, opossums, red foxes and badgers. The carcasses of the animals, which are not good to eat, are discarded.

The program has an annual $500,000 maximum for the payment of collected tails.

Public opposition to the program has grown over time. The state sanctioned a survey early on during the program that showed 78% of about 400 random respondents strongly or moderately approved of the program after questioners explained to them the rationale behind it. However, 62% of those respondents said they knew nothing about the program before being called.

Some public commenters called the program “brutal,” “cruel,” “senseless” and “inhumane.” Others argued that it was simply a waste of money, had no proven results in regard to propagation of pheasants or ducks, and had led to the killing of helpless animals by trappers, including children, seeking a payment.

Robling said the two main goals of the predator bounty program are to strengthen pheasant and duck populations in the wild by reducing the number of prey animals and to get more South Dakota youth engaged in outdoor activities, specifically trapping.

Robling said he looks at successful propagation of the state’s pheasant population as a “three-legged stool” that relies on weather, habitat and predator management.

With the weather an unpredictable and uncontrollable force, Robling said the state focuses on the other two components of pheasant population management. Habitat management and the predator bounty program are key parts of those efforts, Robling said.

The state lost one of its only measures to estimate the pheasant population when the GFP Commission voted to end its annual roadside brood count of young pheasants after 2019.

In the first year, 11% of bounty program participants were under age 18. That percentage rose 13% the second year, and in 2021, 29% of the 2,800 participants in the bounty program were under 18, Robling said.

Predator control methods, and paid bounty programs in particular, are a controversial way of protecting desirable species of animals. The science regarding success of the programs is also murky at best.

One study published in 2016 in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” reviewed 12 other studies of predator-control programs to protect livestock in North America and Europe. The review found that six predator-removal efforts (two lethal, four non-lethal) ultimately led to successful protection of livestock. Two led to a greater predation on livestock and four had no effect.

Sara Parker is co-founder of South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together, which strongly opposes the bounty program.

Parker and traps are indiscriminate and can mistakenly ensnare animals not targeted under the bounty program, trapped animals can suffer for days before being killed and the offspring of trapped adult animals are left to perish alone or starve without parental help, she said.

“This is killing for the sake of killing,” she said.

Parker also questions whether using money to entice children to trap and kill animals is an appropriate goal for a state-funded program. “Of all the things to do outside, I’m not sure why this is the thing you would encourage kids to do in the outdoors.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.