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GF&P opens talks on a new system for deer licenses with more limits

State Wildlife Division leaders provided statistics showing that approximately one-third of the people who applied for rifle and muzzleloader licenses in 2013 didn't get the buck tags that were their first choices in the drawings for the various seasons.

Currently hunters can apply for as few as one and as many as every one of the firearms and muzzleloader seasons. Fifty people applied for all six last year and also purchased archery licenses.

Archery deer licenses are valid for any deer. The number of licenses is unlimited. Any rifle or muzzleloader hunter can pick up an archery license. Most did in 2013. Only 3,301 hunters purchased only an archery license.

Altogether there were 60,179 applications for firearms buck licenses and 42,680 available in 2013. There were 5,885 applications for muzzleloader buck licenses and 1,000 available.

And there were 16,946 archery licenses purchased, most of which rifle and muzzleloader hunters bought.

Wildlife Division officials offered a different approach Wednesday. They said season drawings could be conducted at one time and hunters could be required to select their license preferences on their applications.

The concept calls for hunters to make at least one and possibly as many as three preferences. The commission would set the exact number if the different approach is adopted.

Under that approach, hunters couldn't apply for all of the license categories for East River, West River, Black Hills, Custer State Park, refuges and muzzleloader.

More hunters would get their preferred buck licenses under the concept while some hunters would get fewer licenses. Another choice facing the commission is whether archery licenses should be part of the preference requirement.

State laws also might need to be changed in some instances, regarding special set-asides of licenses for landowners.

The next step by the Wildlife Division is conducting a survey of the approximately 66,000 hunters who applied for some type of deer license in 2013, with results available for the commission's December meeting.

That schedule would provide time to assemble any proposed changes in laws for the Legislature to begin considering in January.

The discussion comes in the wake of big reductions in antlerless deer tags for this year's seasons. The goal is to rebuild deer populations in some hunting units.

Driving the consideration of a different license allocation system is the outside review by the Pennsylvania-based Wildlife Management Institute that was ordered by Gov. Dennis Daugaard two years ago.

An exchange during the presentation Wednesday gave an insight into the background dynamics within the Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Tony Leif, the Wildlife Division director, cautioned the commission that the discussions were preliminary. "I want you to realize this is a big if — if we do anything," Leif said.

"Oh no," GFP Secretary Jeff Vonk, the governor's Cabinet member, interjected. "We're doing something."

The WMI report placed responsibility on the commission to take a deep look at the deer populations and licensing, commissioner Gary Jensen, of Rapid City, said. He said the commission needs to exercise "due diligence" on the matter.

"We've got to address the problem," commissioner Jim Spies of Watertown said, adding that landowner licenses need to be part of the deliberations ahead. "It's going to be a bittersweet thing."

Last year 7,193 landowners applied for 6,931 landowner-preference licenses available for the East River deer season. For the West River season, there were 1,507 applications for 1,501 licenses. The Black Hills season saw 137 applications for 136 licenses.

The own-land licenses for the East River season were 1,915 any-deer and 2,912 two-tag licenses for one buck and one doe or fawn. For West River they were 655 and 1,156.

There also were 1,390 free antlerless deer licenses for landowners in 2013. Those are eliminated for the 2014 season as part of the reductions in antlerless licenses overall.

South Dakota's deer populations have changed a lot in some places during the past two years because of disease, more farmland in production rather than in conservation reserve, weather and hunter harvests.

"It's a big issue," John Cooper of Pierre, the commission chairman, said. He preceded Vonk as GFP secretary.

One of the newest commissioners, former legislator Paul Dennert of Hecla, said he hasn't heard from people about the licensing situation. "I haven't had any calls yet," Dennert said.

Last fall Chris Hesla, the executive director for the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, spoke to the commission about the desire among sportsmen for more opportunities for their preferred licenses.

Several citizens spoke to the commission about the topic in the past few years as well during the public comment period at the start of each regular meeting.

Leif didn't discount Dennert's point. "They're not beating down our doors, I'll tell you that," Leif said.

But times are changing quickly and that might require adjustment, Leif continued.

"More individual people will be able to hunt deer with their preferred licenses with what we're talking about," he said. "The engaged hunters are going to be the ones we hear from the most."