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The South Dakota Nonresident Waterfowl Issue

by Chuck Dieter

As President of the South Dakota Waterfowl Association, I was in the center of a political battle over nonresident waterfowl licenses from January through June. In South Dakota, there has been an ongoing controversy since 1947 over the number of nonresident waterfowl hunters to allow into the state each fall. As well, for the last 20 years or so, there have been battles in the Legislature over the topic, almost yearly.

During the law-making session of 2014, the Legislature washed their hands of the issue and passed it on to the South Dakota Game Commission. The commission consists of 8 individuals from around the state appointed by the governor. The commission generally has final say on any fish and wildlife seasons in South Dakota, but this is the first year they’ve had a final decision on the nonresident waterfowl licensing issue.

Several legislators who have been pushing for more nonresident waterfowl hunters were elated when the duty was assigned to the SD Game Commission. They were certain they could easily persuade the commission to expand the number of licenses.

I was a member of a 9-person “advisory group” assigned the task of coming up with a proposal to present to the Commission regarding this issue. Whoever set up this “advisory group” assigned 4 members who supported adding licenses, 3 who were against adding licenses, and 2 commissioners who were to remain neutral during the discussion. However, one of the commissioners had been a proponent of more licenses for many years while in the legislature.

As I reported in an article in this magazine several months ago, the advisory group was stacked to create a proposal that added nonresident licenses without giving anything additional to residents. I, along with several other members of the advisory group, did not go along with the recommendations of the advisory group, yet the proposal was forwarded to the SD Game Commission.

The proposal would have added about 600 more waterfowl hunters in the central part of the state which are already crowded. What’s more, the proposal would have added more season-long licenses along the Missouri River near Springfield. The only good point of the proposal was to add 100 nonresident youth licenses valid during the resident youth season.

At Commission meetings in Brookings in April and in Custer in May, there was overwhelming opposition from resident hunters against the proposal. Few spoke in support of the proposal. However, as part of the process, the proposal was put up for public comment and was set to be finalized on June 4 in Pierre.

During May and right up until the June meeting, public comments were streaming in to the Commission. On the day of the meeting, there were hunters from all over the state, as well as several folks from North Dakota, who came to testify during the public testimony period.

I was there to testify for the 500 members of the South Dakota Waterfowl Association. Also attending was the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, The Izaak Walton Club, and other sportsmen groups from around the state. There was also some great testimony by individual hunters.

In the end, there were at least 50 people who spoke against the proposal and hundreds who wrote in against it. In fact, about 90 percent of residents who wrote in opposed the proposal. In addition, 40 percent of nonresident hunters who wrote in opposed the proposal.

There were some who spoke in favor of the proposal. Guess who. The only 4 people who spoke in favor of the proposal were the 4 pro-commercial members of the “advisory group”! After several months, supporters of the proposal could not muster any further support from anywhere in the state.

The Commission’s vote on the morning of June 5 was unanimous. Sportsmen’s voices were heard above the din of commercialism. The only part of the proposal that passed was the addition of 100 nonresident youth licenses during the resident youth season. This part of the proposal was a suggestion by the South Dakota Waterfowl Association.

It was great to see the process work like it should. The Commission obviously listened to resident (and nonresident) hunters who want to maintain the world class waterfowl hunting experience we have in South Dakota. Here is one of my favorite letters from a former South Dakota resident:

“As a former resident of South Dakota, I have enjoyed hunting and fishing since I was 3 years old. It was a hard decision to move from South Dakota, but knowing I could still have the opportunity to come back and enjoy great waterfowl hunting for 10 days a year was great comfort. Unfortunately, if you choose to raise the number of nonresident licenses, it will ruin the great hunting South Dakota provides! Even if it means some years I do not get a license, I am completely fine with that in order to sustain the hunting I grew up with. If you increase licenses, eventually there will be no good hunting to come back to. I ask, as a nonresident hunter, that you please keep licenses the same, if not reduce the number of licenses. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please protect the hunting for the future!”

Prior to the final vote, Commissioner Gary Jensen stated, “At least 90 percent of resident hunters want us to reject this proposal. It was also interesting to hear from the hunters from North Dakota who testified about how waterfowl hunting has been ruined in their state. It’s clear that reallocation of certain licenses was actually intended to increase nonresident hunters. We have a great hunt in the state, but it’s obvious that pressure is stressing the quality. Therefore we must reject this proposal.”

John Cooper, Chairman of the Commission, said, “The Legislature has put a great amount of pressure on the Commission but we welcome it.”

He also stated that moving 3-day licenses from the Missouri River to another part of the state was not allowed by state statute and the 500 previously moved to the northeast part of the state was not legal. John’s final comments on the proposal were music to the ears of hunters:

“In 12 years as the head of South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks and in my 6 years on the Commission, I have never seen a proposal more widely, soundly, and solidly opposed. There is no way I can vote in favor when our clients didn’t only say no, but hell no!”

How long will this ruling last? No one knows, but we requested that current numbers stay static for at least 3-5 years so we do not have to face this challenge every year.

This process renewed my faith in the political process. On behalf of the SD Waterfowl Association and hunters from around the state, I want to thank the members of the SD Game Commission.

By the way, waterfowl season is fast approaching.