The Game, Fish and Parks Department is taking another run at changing the way it allocates deer hunting licenses to South Dakota’s roughly 71,000 deer hunters.

Ultimately, the goal will be to get as many hunters the license they really want as often as possible given the limited number of licenses available in a given year, said Kevin Robling, special projects coordinator for the department. It’s the second time in a little more than three years that the department has looked at making changes to the deer hunting license allocation system.

This time around, Robling said three alternative systems will be presented to five focus groups convened in different cities around the state before anything makes it to the GFP Commission for a final decision. A fourth option would be to keep things as they are but that wouldn’t require any action.

“There may not be any changes at all,” Robling said.

Robling gave the GFP Commission an update on the progress being made on addressing the licensing issue. How South Dakota’s deer hunting licenses are doled out was one of the social issues not included in the state’s recently completed deer management plan.

The issue was left out of the plan because it was too big, too complex and too contentious for the plan, which focused on the science side of deer management. Instead, a call for further work on deer hunting license allocations was added in.

The deer licensing problem boils down to supply and demand. Deer hunting licenses, unlike pheasant hunting licenses, are limited in number. And because there are more deer hunters than deer that sustainably can be killed, licenses to hunt them are assigned to hunters every year through a lottery drawing. In 2017, there were 71,679 unique applicants for the state’s roughly 46,000 deer hunting licenses, Robling said.

License availability is further limited by the fact that the state is divided into several dozen hunting units. Each unit is managed for a different number of deer depending on carrying capacity and what both the hunting and non-hunting public wants.

Because there usually are fewer licenses in a given unit than there are hunters, not everyone gets the license they want every year.

Part of the problem is that hunters can apply for a license in each of the state’s seven deer seasons every year. If they aren’t successful in a given drawing, they can buy a preference point that increases their chance of drawing a license the next year.

Hunting units with a lot of public land or those known for big bucks, attract many applications. That’s not the whole problem though. Because hunters may apply, relatively cheaply, for up to seven licenses in the first drawing, many apply for multiple licenses knowing they really only want one or maybe two but want to cover their bases in case they don’t get the license they want.

The end effect is that the relatively few hunters who really only want a license to hunt a buck with a muzzleloading rifle or to hunt in Custer State Park, get crowded out by the thousands of other hunters who apply for those licenses not really expecting to draw one. That means it can take several years for a hunter to draw one. If it’s the only license they really want, the wait can really frustrate a hunter.

Back in 2014, as a prelude to making some changes, the GFP Commission asked department staff to conduct a survey on what, if anything, hunters would like to see changed in deer licensing. The survey’s results were inconclusive and ultimately no changes were made.

“That’s exactly the road we don’t want to repeat,” Robling said.

Robling said he and other GFP staff have been meeting with a deer stakeholder group to devise and perfect a set of alternative license allocation systems.

In a recent interview with the Capital Journal, Robling declined to give details on the three potential new license allocation systems, saying that he didn’t want anything to be misunderstood before the focus groups have a chance to meet. But each alternative likely will force hunters to choose a limited number of licenses to apply for in the first drawing.

The first focus group likely will meet in March, Robling said. Each group will be presented with mock licence applications based on each of the three alternatives. They’ll be asked to fill out each one as if they were actually applying for hunting licenses. The idea is to simulate how each system would work and give participants a feel for how each system works so they can pick which one they like better.

The most preferred alternative would be taken to the GFP Commission as a rule proposal, which would be subject to a 30-day public comment period and a public hearing before it could be approved. Robling said nothing will go before the commission until at least 2019.

“It’s an 18-month process,” Robling said.

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