South Dakota could spend as much as $500,000 to promote animal trapping under the guise of boosting pheasants.
There’s little evidence to suggest Gov. Kristi Noem’s Nest Predator Bounty Program will even modestly increase bird numbers and plenty to suggest it won’t.
More birds — maintaining South Dakota as the must-visit destination for well-heeled hunters — should be the goal. Noem’s program essentially blasts an empty sky with expensive birdshot to promote outdoor culture.
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks commissioners voted to approve Noem’s plan on April 5, but the program began before then. It will pay nearly $100,000 for the distribution of up to 16,500 live traps. Participants will receive a $10 bounty for each tail taken from raccoons, striped skunks, opossum, badgers and red foxes. State officials estimate bounty payouts will be less than $400,000.
Prior to the vote, former GF&P secretary John Cooper complained neither GF&P commissioners nor state sportsmen had been given a chance to discuss Noem’s program before it started.
“The issue here is the ability of the public to have comment on these large expenditures,” Cooper told commissioners. “It’s frankly disturbing that details of the program, which comes with a large price tag, were not disclosed to the very people, the commission, who have the responsibility for budget transparency and accountability in our state.”
A chance to comment might have led to a deeper discussion about the program’s real objectives and potential effectiveness.
Noem, who once ran a pheasant lodge and calls herself South Dakota sportsman in chief, recently wrote “the program will be extremely beneficial in enhancing duck and pheasant nest success.”
The Pheasants Forever website, however, suggests that only full-time professional trapping can boost bird numbers through predator control, and only then in localized areas.
“It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators,” the site says, “and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.”
So random amateur trapping across a broad landscape might actually result in fewer birds?
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Larry Fredrickson of Chamberlain, who did original research on predator reduction for South Dakota, says studies have repeatedly shown that pheasant numbers increase only upon the removal of 80 to 90 percent of a predator population. To achieve that, he says, poison baits are required.
Notably, in approving Noem’s plan, commissioners didn’t emphasize its effect on birds. Commissioner Robert Whitmyre of Webster said the program’s other stated goal — getting more young people active outdoors — is more important than the number of tails brought in for the bounty.
In March, state wildlife damage specialist Keith Fisk said he was excited about the program but when questioned couldn’t predict how much it would boost pheasants.
“In my opinion it’s going to be very difficult to ascertain the benefit of the program,” Fisk said.
GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler said recently that boosting pheasants is kind of beside the point. More than anything, he said, it’s about getting more people out in the field and trapping.
Hunters tend to look on the bright side even when returning home with empty bags. Really, isn’t it simply about getting outside?
No, it’s really about the $100 million or more in economic impact from nearly 90,000 non-resident hunters flocking to our state annually because South Dakota is No. 1 in pheasants. The loss of millions of dollars are at stake because state pheasant numbers continue declining, due mostly to disappearing habitat. Weather also plays a role, but we can’t control that.
From 2007-17, Conservation Reserve Program acreage was reduced 37 percent statewide, with some counties in western South Dakota seeing reductions of more than 75 percent. A study published by the South Dakota State University Extension Service in 2014 found that between 2006 and 2012, South Dakota lost 1.84 million acres of grassland primarily to corn and soybean production.
Fewer birds translates to fewer non-resident hunters and lost millions.
Noem herself has said that pheasant numbers have dropped and habitat lands have diminished largely because of fewer CRP acres.
Under her direction, South Dakota is currently crowdsourcing for ideas to reverse the longtime pheasant and pheasant habitat decline. Any new program should remain laser targeted on increasing pheasant habitat.