PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee on Tuesday, Feb. 16 overwhelmingly approved a measure that landowners say would drastically limit the instances when a game warden could enter private property without prior approval from a landowner.

Prior to a 10-2 vote for House Bill 1140, testimony had elicited accusations the measure was a "poacher's bill," but the bill's proponents, namely, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, said the measure would build better relationships between landowners and game wardens, who now would need permission to enter private lands, save when an imminent crime is happening.

"Our best line of defense...is each other," said said Kevin Robling, interim secretary for GFP, who tried to assuage lawmakers that limiting conservation officers' access to private lands would not impede efforts to protect wildlife.

But a number of opponents accused the bill of paving the way for bad actors to thwart the game wardens charged with enforcing the state's hunting and fishing rules. Some even used the dreaded "P" word.

George Vandel, representing the South Dakota Waterfowl Association, noted what others roundly acknowledged that 80% of South Dakota's land is privately owned, and that historic efforts to build back migratory bird populations — popular for hunting — is rooted in the strong teeth of conservation officers.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"It (HB 1140) removes compliance and opens South Dakota up to be a poacher's paradise," said Vandel.

Currently under South Dakota law, a state game warden has full access to a field — even one privately owned — through what's often referred to as the "open fields doctrine," namely law enforcement's ability to search without a warrant the non-residential areas of private property without violating the Fourth Amendment.

But on Tuesday, many landowners cried foul, with one testifier saying such a doctrine "normalizes trespassing."

"As far as my land, I think I do have the right to know who's out there doing it," said Robert Johnson, a landowner in Harding County. " I never have had a reason to deny a game warden (access)."

Bill opponents objected to the measure specifically carving away the open-fields doctrine for game wardens but leaving it intact for other law enforcement officers, including the county sheriff or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services agents.

But Committee Chair Marty Overweg, a New Holland Republican, wondered if agents could approach him sitting in his pick-up on his own property without just cause.

"Is he legal just to drive on my land and see what I am doing?" asked Overweg.

Ultimately, many testifiers disagreed over to what extent the bill — which does allow for game wardens to enter private property "without permission" when suspecting a crime or to "dispatch crippled or distressed wildlife" would incentivize illegal behavior among hunters and fishers.

"It would be a great disservice to assume you can manage our resources based on property boundaries," said testifier Zachary Hunke, who noted game animals "travel, migrate, swim or move" between private and property boundaries at ease.

But Robling, who noted there had been "no specific instance" that compelled the bill's appearance this session, repeated his promise that the measure only codifies current policy.

According to the latest year on record, South Dakota game wardens handed out over 500 hunting violations in 2019.

The bill now proceeds to a vote by the full House.