The Rub Line: Deer focus groups and GFP Commission engagement.

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By Dana R. Rogers

The legislative season has come to a close at the state level, but that doesn’t mean issues relating to sportsmen and women are completed for the year. In South Dakota, for example, the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission accepts proposals for changes to administrative rules from the public, and individuals can make proposed changes to the GFP staff at any time. There is always a lot going on in the way of possible rule changes, and I always encourage concerned sportsmen to become informed and involved in the process.

Part of my focus in this column lately has been talking about the deer stakeholders group and the ongoing discussions they’ve had with GFP staff. I was invited to sit on deer stakeholders meeting in December when the group was asked to consider four options to revamp the current draw system for deer seasons. Since that time, GFP staff have eliminated one option, which means there are still three on the table.

Option No. 3 would mean no change to the drawings for firearms deer permits. If you are happy with how things currently stand in regards to drawing firearms licenses, this may well be your preference. If you would like to see some changes, however, the first two options might be more to your liking.

Option No. 1 would combine West River, East River and Black Hills firearms permits into one drawing.

Option No. 2 would combine those three seasons along with the draw for muzzleloader, Custer State Park and refuge permits.

Right now, GFP is asking for more public involvement, and focus groups will be meeting across the state to gather more input on which option deer hunters prefer. Keep in mind that none of this has been approved or even brought before the commission yet. If any changes are proposed and finalized this year they would take effect during the application process and draw for the 2019 deer hunting seasons.

The idea to change or update how deer tags are drawn stems from many complaints by individuals who choose to hunt only with a rifle and want to draw a county that is historically hard to get an either-sex tag for. The theory is that these two options would change the current system and allow more people to draw a “preferred” license.

There has been a lot of misinformation being spread about combining the firearms draw. It will not cap or limit how many tags a person can draw. There have always been areas that have had leftover permits, so people can still get multiple tags as long as they wait until the third draw to get a second firearms permit. Also, the preference-point system would remain in place and hunters would not lose any preference points. Hunters could still build points for all seasons by purchasing those points. It also has no effect on landowner permits. Qualifying landowners can still use their landowner preference if that’s the tag they desire as a first choice. They could also still qualify for a landowner “on their own land” permits if they chose to use their first choice on another season or unit.

If hunters are concerned that they would put themselves at a disadvantage through one of the first two license allocation options for change, I would point out that everyone would be in the same boat. You would have to decide what your favorite two license and unit choices would be, and that certainly won’t be the same for everyone across the state. There will be a lot of units with much higher draw odds than there ever have been in the past and plenty of leftover tags, as well. If one of the first two options gains traction and is approved, I can see a way to continue building points for all seasons and then moving your first and second choices around in future years to leverage your preference points and have much better draw odds for a preferred firearms permit on a regular basis.

Another discussion point is changing our current system of unlimited nonresident archery permits for deer and antelope. A significant number of bowhunters have given the GFP feedback on the high number of nonresidents they encounter on many of our public lands. GFP data also show a higher rate of harvest and a disproportionate number of mule deer being tagged by nonresident hunters. It’s worth noting it can take resident rifle hunters several years to draw tags for several of those public lands, yet a nonresident archery hunter can purchase a tag each year. I’ve fielded a lot of questions and comments about this issue, and what I can tell you is that the vast majority of resident bowhunters are in favor of the change.

I’ve also received several complaints from nonresidents, but I simply point out that I know of no other state that offers a statewide tag in an unlimited amount that is valid for mule deer and whitetail. I’d also hope that a state’s resident hunters, wildlife agency and other citizens could decide for themselves how to manage and allocate the state’s resources. As of this writing, I believe GFP staff will propose a finite limit or quota on all archery hunters’ access to limited-access units such West River Deer Units 24B, 27L and 35L, as well as East River Deer Units 13L and 59L. Unlimited free access permits are also likely this fall in the Black Hills to gauge pressure.

Access to landlocked public land is coming up for discussion in April, and I definitely encourage everyone to provide input. State law requires that public access to these properties be kept open. This doesn’t have to be a road, though; it could simply be a section-line easement with a 66-foot right of way to walk.

This ties into a few of the house and senate bills from the legislative session regarding vacating section lines and the abandonment of some roads by townships and counties. It’s not just a nonmeandered water issue, folks, as it comes into play a lot in central and particularly western South Dakota with School and Public Lands as well as Bureau of Land Management land access.

I fully support landowner’s rights and that nobody should trespass. However, there are many instances where commercial hunting interests have tried to keep legal hunters from accessing public lands, and that can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.

A final proposal I want to mention was brought forth by a citizen directly to the GFP commission in early March. A proposal was made to increase the amount of acreage and elk-use days required for someone to qualify for a landowner elk permit. I sat through testimony from one rancher who proposed the change, another who supported it and a third who owns property that qualifies but brought up points against the proposal. A modification was made by the rancher who proposed the change, and the commission accepted it for further review and public comment before a decision will be made.

I have mixed feelings over this. I believe qualifying landowners should get an elk permit in order to help keep their tolerance level high and continue to allow more public hunting opportunities. There are also landowners who don’t make a living from the land but do provide a lot of elk habitat and food and keep that land from being subdivided.

My main thought is that happier landowners can equal more elk, but that isn’t necessarily the case. I also don’t like the idea of individuals buying land simply to qualify for an elk permit.

There is middle ground that can be found here, I think. One idea might be to change landowner tags to “on own land only” or “private land only.” The thought of increasing the land required has some merit, as does a suggestion to alternate either-sex permits for antlerless permits or have some type of acreage pyramid and years the permit is available. Those would certainly meet more landowner criticism, though.

Ending on a brighter note, South Dakota does have a new bighorn sheep hunting unit that will border the Badlands. In addition, the state has an additional tag for this year’s drawing. Thanks to the efforts of conservation organizations such as the Wild Sheep Foundation and the funding generated from past auction tags, we now have more sheep in South Dakota. In fact, GFP personnel just moved a dozen bighorns from the Badlands National Park to Custer State Park to bolster its recently disease-free herd.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do feel hunters should be informed and involved in order to have their say in the process. Remember, you can always contact GFP directly by emailing wildinfo@state.sd.us. You can also stay up to date with commission information by going to gfp.sd.gov/agency/ and clicking on the drop-down menu for the commission.

As always when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.

About the Author: Big-game columnist Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now calls the Black Hills home. Contact him with comments or questions at dana.rogers.1@hotmail.com.