State Rep. Darrell Solberg wants to make hunting and fishing a lifetime experience for more South Dakotans, with a license that lasts as long as they do.
The Sioux Falls Democrat has introduced legislation to create a lifetime resident license for fishing and small-game hunting, including pheasants. Solberg said it would be more than just a novel convenience for avid hunters. It would also be a great gift that might get young people interested in hunting and fishing and keep them interested throughout their lives, he said.
"If you buy a license sporadically, it's real easy to discontinue buying them," said Solberg, who hunts and fishes. "If you have a lifetime license, you are more apt to go more often. And if you go more often, you widen your circle of people who go with you, and perpetuate the sport."
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Secretary Jeff Vonk is all for perpetuating hunting and fishing. But he also worries about how the lifetime license could affect future GF&P budgets, which rely heavily on annual hunting and fishing license sales. That's why Vonk and GF&P have are going to oppose the bill, with regrets to Solberg.
"We believe this is a sincere effort by Rep. Solberg," Vonk said. "But we're concerned about mortgaging the future of the game fund on assumptions that haven't been proven in regard to this license, especially the issue of non-residents returning to hunt and fish."
That is particularly important to GF&P because the annual sales of non-resident hunting and fishing licenses are the leading revenue source for the agency's Wildlife Division. During the 2009 fiscal year, non-resident hunting and fishing license fees contributed more than $18 million of the division's $42.5 million budget. Non-resident small-game licenses, which are mostly for pheasant hunting, provided about $11 million.
Vonk worries those allowing South Dakota residents who move from the state to have lifetime pheasant permits would reduce the department's revenue.
"It's a huge revenue source for the Wildlife Division," he said.
The current non-resident license sells for $110 and is good for 10 days. The resident license sells for $29 and is good for the year. Depending on the age of the person licensed, the lifetime small-game permit would sell for $425 to $775 under Solberg's legislation, HB1170. The lifetime fishing license would range from $325 to $675. The lifetime combination license would range from $525 to $1,050.
Vonk points out that a young South Dakota resident could buy a lifetime hunting license, move out of state to live and return to hunt pheasants for 30 or 40 years -- avoiding the $110 annual non-resident fee. There should at least be a detailed analysis of the potential impact of the lifetime permit before it is established, Vonk said.
HB1170 would allow the GF&P Commission to increase the cost of the lifetime licenses based on increases in the consumer price index. Money from the sale of the lifetime license would be deposited into a special fund, which GF&P could not spend. GF&P could use interest from the fund in its operational budget.
The lifetime licenses would be for residents only and would apply only to small game and fishing. Residents with the license who moved out of state would have to apply for non-resident permits on big-game, turkey and waterfowl.
Solberg said he understands Vonk's worries about the Wildlife Division budget but doesn't believe they will be a problem. He said he checked with 10 other states that have the lifetime licenses and "all of them indicated that if they had to do it over again, they would."
Even if former South Dakota residents can avoid the annual non-resident fee, they will come back more often to hunt and spend money in the private sector, Solberg said. And they'll likely bring back non-resident friends, who will have to buy licenses and boost the private economy as well, Solberg said.
"We may be missing a few dollars from those individuals who did buy the lifetime license," he said. "But if they develop a hunting camaraderie, they're more likely to come back, plus bring those other individuals from out of state."
That in itself can be an issue, Vonk said. Some resident hunters complain to GF&P about the influx of non-residents for the pheasant season, believing it limits their hunting options. There has been a marked growth in non-resident hunters over the last 20 years.
In 1988, 79,800 residents and 30,000 non-residents hunted pheasants in South Dakota, GF&P records show. In 2008, there were 75,831 residents and 100,349 non-residents.
But Solberg thinks there is room for everyone. He pointed out that South Dakota has 2 million acres of public hunting areas and private land leased for public hunting, plus "plenty of public fishing water, too."
And non-resident hunters and anglers do bring money, both for GF&P and the private sector, especially during the pheasant season. GF&P estimated in 2008 that resident pheasant hunters spent $40.6 million during the season, while non-residents spent $179 million.
As the most prominent and prolific pheasant state, South Dakota also could be unique in how a lifetime permit might affect income. Nebraska has both pheasants and lifetime hunting licenses, but officials there haven't noticed the kind of financial problems that worry GF&P in South Dakota.
"I guess we've never addressed or thought about that," said Bob Zegar, administrative assistant for permits with the Nebraska Game and Fish Commission in Lincoln. Zegar admitted that Nebraska doesn't enjoy the same pheasant hunting experience.
"For whatever reason, South Dakota has way, way more pheasants than we have," he said. "A lot of our residents won't hunt pheasants here. They go to South Dakota, just for the numbers."
Since Nebraska began its lifetime hunting and fishing licenses in 1984, it has sold about 25,000. Last year, 1,119 residents and 19 non-residents bought the lifetime permits.
In 2009, the state also sold 34,189 resident small-game licenses, 13,646 nonresident small game licenses, 118,271 resident fishing licenses and 6,798 nonresident fishing licenses, along with additional youth permits and regular big-game licenses.
So far, the lifetime licenses don't seem to have caused noticeable problems in lost revenue, and they are popular with the public, said Don Lanning, assistant fiscal administrator for the Nebraska outdoor agency.
"People seem to be inclined to buy a lifetime permit for a Christmas present or maybe for a graduation present," he said. "Sales are fairly steady each month."
That is what Darrell Solberg hopes to see in South Dakota, if he can get his bill through the Legislature. He also hopes many of the lifetime permits would go to young people.
"I feel like it's an aging population that's hunting," he said. "If there's any way to encourage young people to start hunting and perpetuate it, I think they'll hunt the rest of their lives."
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or email@example.com