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Pheasants Forever, biologists looking for businesses to help fund more public hunting land

A Walk-In Area signs is posted on hunting grounds along 421 Avenue in Miner County. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 2
Dan DeBoer, a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist for Pheasants Forever, poses for a photo in the habitat field planted to the north of Toshiba in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 2

Dan DeBoer and Pheasants Forever are working to build a community-effort initiative to bring more public hunting opportunities to South Dakota.

A farm bill biologist, the 23-year-old DeBoer moved to Mitchell for his new job in the beginning of May. He's one of 13 biologists working for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota, and each of them will play a crucial role attempting to expand the state's Walk In Areas acreage, with a long-term goal to boost community businesses.

"In South Dakota, pheasant hunting is a huge attraction, and when you see less areas to hunt, you see less hunters coming in, less birds being shot and less money coming into the community," he said.

Among the available public hunting locations in South Dakota are about 1.2 million acres enrolled in the Walk In Area program. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department (GF&P) pays about 1,300 landowners who've signed up for the program based on various incentives such as acreage, contract length and habitat conditions.

And now, Pheasants Forever — a national nonprofit conservation organization — is working to "sweeten the pot," according to officials.

Local Pheasants Forever chapters will work to collect funds from local businesses that will be added to state dollars and further incentivize landowners to sign up for the Walk In Areas program. Once the funding is secured, biologists like DeBoer will help interested landowners enroll.

While the initiative is in its infancy, it will be discussed at length at the 2018 National Pheasant Fest, held Feb. 16-18 at the Sioux Falls Convention Center. City and town officials, such as mayors and convention and visitor's bureau directors, will be invited to hear the plan.

"This is not just for big communities, but can be done at smaller levels," said Matt Morlock, the acting director for South Dakota's Regional Office of Pheasants Forever. "South Dakota wouldn't be what it is without small, rural communities, and this is a way to bring more dollars onto Main streets."

The Walk In Area program began in 1988 and some South Dakota counties have utilized the program significantly more than others. Davison County has the fourth-fewest enrolled acres in the state at 133, followed by Charles Mix at 98 acres, Brule at 57 and Douglas with the fewest at 13, according to GF&P data. The county with the most Walk In Area acres is Butte at about 205,700.

And while the Mitchell region could see an upswing in Walk In Area acres through the initiative, Brown County in northern South Dakota already has. A group of people who formed the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition has added 14 Walk In Areas in Brown County for a total of 1,464 new acres since January 2016. All of the acres are enrolled for 10 years.

Pheasant County, the Mitchell-area chapter of Pheasants Forever, is interested in pursuing a similar approach to the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition, according to Dave Allen.

"The more hunting opportunities we can get, the better off we are," said Allen, president of Pheasant Country. Allen said he has yet to discuss the plan with his local board and declined to provide more details.

And while Pheasants Forever and its chapters are leading this initiative, GF&P is rooting for success.

Walk In Areas are open to any open hunting seasons, but the acres will be most impactful for pheasant hunters, an important driver for South Dakota's economy. Last year, 1.256 million resident and nonresident hunters spent an estimated $170.1 million on pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

"It's this idea that the community is investing in these Walk In Areas and that in turn brings in hunters to the area," said Paul Coughlin, GF&P habitat administrator. "It gets stakeholders engaged in the value these hunters bring to the local area."