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Wiltz: Sage grouse receive big bucks

After we get through all of today's facts and figures, we'll talk about sage grouse, but I want to tell you this right now. If you head out to Harding County next fall to hunt sage grouse, you'll be allowed one bird. You will have to take him or her to a checkpoint station.

After you get through that, you will discover that he or she doesn't taste very good ... at least in my opinion. Is it worth the effort? Definitely!

As hunters, we have a good deal going for us. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was put into place. This law levies an 11 percent federal excise tax on the sale of rifles, shotguns, handguns, ammunition, and archery equipment. The Internal Revenue Service collects the tax from manufacturers, and then transfers these funds to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to distribute to state wildlife agencies. The money then goes to research, management, hunter education, and shooting programs.

How does USFWS distribute the money? The amount of dollars awarded is based on a state's land area along with its hunting license sales. In spite of our low population, South Dakota fares well with this formula.

Your first reaction might be, "What's so special about that? As a hunter, I'm the guy who's paying the bill!" This is partially true. We hunters, you and I, are buying the rifles, shotguns, ammo, and archery equipment. But here's something to think about. The Pittman-Robertson funds collected have nearly tripled in the last 10 years in spite of a serious decline in the number of hunters. How is that explained?

Sixty percent of firearms and archery shooters don't hunt. As the dramatic rise in gun purchases came in the last ten years, I'm thinking handguns, and I'm thinking that the motivation to buy them came primarily from politicians threatening more gun control. If I'm wrong, let me know.

The top states in 2016 for Federal Wildlife Restoration Funding were, in rank order from the top: Texas, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina, and Georgia. The dollars awarded per state for these states ranges from $32.14 million to $19.31 million.

The firearms and archery industries have lately been trying to get Congress to enact a Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act. One of the changes would relate to shooting ranges. Currently, funds for shooting ranges are restricted to ranges used for hunter education. Permitting all gun owners to shoot might be a good idea.

In leaving the Pittman-Robertson funds for a moment, the latest issue of Sports Afield magazine contains the short article, "Saving the Sage Grouse."

First of all, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to list the Greater Sage Grouse on the Endangered Species List. As you probably know, this has been kicked around. Rather than list the bird, USFWS has decided to continue with a volunteer restoration project that includes both the birds and habitat. What has hurt the birds and depleted their native sagebrush habitat? Mining, housing developments, new roads, and shopping centers.

Federal agencies have allocated $360 million to be spent on sage grouse through the end of 2018. Can you imagine? $360 million for sage grouse? After visiting with Paul Coughlin of our SD Game, Fish, & Parks Dept., I learned that these monies are a part of our federal farm program. This makes that dollar amount more believable in my estimation. I also asked Coughlin what he thought about the USFWL's decision to not list the bird on their Endangered Species List. Coughlin was supportive of the decision.

The project will include the removal of invasive conifers and the restoration of wetland nesting habitat. To me, this sounds like red cedars and rebuilt stock dams. We can chop down a lot of cedars for $360 million.

Will our South Dakota sage grouse benefit from this multi-million dollar windfall? I contacted the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks, and I received a prompt reply from Travis Runia. What I learned sounded good, but it didn't sound like multi-million dollar projects. Runia mentioned the use of Pittman-Robertson funds for conducting sage grouse surveys, and he also mentioned a state-funded biologist in Belle Fourche who works with landowners on sage grouse habitat projects.

I know I've sounded a wee bit skeptical but I'm not. I'm skeptical about the amount of money being spent on the projects. I just hope that the grouse money goes in the right pockets.

We have an estimated 200,000-500,000 sage grouse across the American West. Let's average the high and low and call it 350,000 sage grouse. If we spend $360 million on them by 2018, that's more than $1,000 per bird. Does that make them lucky birds? Hopefully we can follow that money.

The first deadline for South Dakota spring turkey tags is Feb. 10. Never hunted turkey? Watch for next week's column on my first turkey hunt. I knew absolutely nothing about turkeys, and it certainly showed. Remember Little Jane? South Dakota has its own Little Jane, and we'll talk about her too.

See you next week.