GFP commission votes down waterfowl refuge expansion at Lake Oahe
The commission voted unanimously to leave the current boundaries stand as is.
WATERTOWN — The boundaries of the Oahe Dam State Waterfowl Refuge will remain unchanged after the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission voted not to expand the boundaries of the refuge on Thursday.
The action, which came by unanimous vote, took place at the regular April meeting of the commission in Watertown.
“Our recommendation would be to not approve this and leave the current status as it is,” Tom Kirschenmann, director of wildlife for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, told the commission at the meeting prior to the vote.
The proposal on the floor would have modified the boundary of the Oahe Dam State Waterfowl Refuge. It would have expanded the geographic area to include the water of Lake Oahe and all lands owned and managed by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lying south and west of S.D. Highway 1804 and north and east of S.D. Highway 1806 from the current refuge boundary upstream of the Oahe Dam to the east boundary of Peoria Flats State Waterfowl refuge and the water line from the downstream point of LaFramboise Island to the downstream point of Farm Island.
The proposal was originally put forth by the South Dakota Migratory and Upland Gamebird Association, although it was denied by the commission at an earlier meeting due to the inclusion of a clause that would have locked the expansion in for 50 years.
The commission then developed a proposal that included the addition to the Oahe Dam State Waterfowl Refuge as requested and believed the additions to the refuge deserved an opportunity for public comment, which took place at a previous meeting.
Kirschenmann said it was difficult to support the proposal due to the reduced waterfowl hunting opportunities that would result along with no clear indication that it would improve waterfowl numbers at the location.
“This expansion is not only on the water, but also on the shores. It’s multiple acres of public land,” Kirschenmann said. “Our recommendation would be to not move forward with this. The primary reason is because of the waterfowl hunting opportunities that would be taken away, in particular duck hunting.”
The total area in the proposed expansion and removal of public access for waterfowl hunting opportunities is 14,768 acres — a 444% increase in size that includes 11,704 acres of water and 3,064 acres of land. The proposed refuge expansion would remove shoreline hunting that includes 24.2 miles upstream and 24.5 miles downstream from the Oahe Dam.
That area is currently widely utilized by the hunting public, Kirschenmann said, and members of the public who spoke against the proposal at a commission meeting in Pierre last month cited that concern as part of their opposition, he said.
“It’s not just the shoreline hunting. We have several waterfowl hunters there above the dam that also utilize the open water for duck hunting as well, and so when you have a waterfowl refuge in place, that pertains to all waterfowl hunting, so it is duck and geese,” Kirschenmann said.
In addition to taking away chances for hunters to bag birds, Kirschenmann said expanding the refuge may not have a significant impact on duck and goose numbers in the area. Even without refuge status, the proposed expansion area is already used by birds.
“We are seeing these areas, even though they are not in refuge, are being utilized by birds, geese in particular but also ducks as staging and molting areas. We know this area even without a refuge is being utilized by those birds,” Kirschenmann said.
Though there has been some indication of lower bird counts at Oahe in recent years, Kirschenmann said that is likely due to the long-term changes in the migratory paths of those birds. Many birds are now remaining for longer farther north, where they can find food and open water easily. This reduces the need for them to travel to the Pierre area as they once did.
“We’ve also seen, over the years, a decrease in Canada geese numbers in the Pierre area, not as a result of not having safe water to sit on, but (because) that migration has changed, and we just don’t see the numbers down in the Pierre area anymore,” Kirschenmann said. “They’re holding up north farther, in particular in North Dakota. They have open water and food up there, there is no reason to come down farther along the Missouri River corridor."
Members of the commission agreed that expanding the refuge was not in the best interest of the hunting public at this time.
“There is a lot to be lost if we were to expand this refuge, and there are a lot of people who would be really put off by that. It wouldn’t be a good move,” said Robert Whitmyre, a member of the commission from Webster.
Doug Sharp, vice chair for the commission from Watertown, agreed, adding that while ensuring strong bird numbers is important, he didn’t see the benefits outweighing the drawbacks in the proposal.
He also said that the removal of accessible shorelines would hurt the ability of those with disabilities to enjoy a hunt.
“At the end of the day what struck me most was the stories of people being able to enjoy (that area) who are less physically capable. I concur that going forth with this would not be in the best interest of those utilizing it,” Sharp said.
Stephanie Rissler, a commission member from Vermillion, said the correspondence from the public she has seen was strongly in favor of rejecting the proposal.
“People have reached out by phone and mail — not email, but regular United States postal mail — and handwritten letters and photos to let us know where they stand. I don’t think it’s worth going forward now, but I appreciate both parties that brought their side forward. This is how the process works, but it’s been an interesting process and I appreciate everyone who stepped up to reach out to us,” Rissler said.
Charles Spring, a commission member from Union Center, also did not like reducing access for hunters.
“I think the department as far as I can see has always pushed for more access, and to go ahead with this is backwards. It’s cutting access for sportsmen and I can’t go along with it,” Spring said. “I think it would hurt way more people than it would ever help. It’s just a backwards way of going about it.”
Julie Bartling, a commission member from Gregory, said she also heard many comments from the public who were opposed to the measure.
“I do appreciate those who brought the petition forward, but I cannot support it at this time. I’ve received a phenomenal amount of comments from those who do not support it, and that weighs heavily with me,” Bartling said.
Travis Bies, a commissioner from Fairburn, said he had also heard concerns from the public about reduced access. He also said it may be prudent to re-evaluate how refuges are performing in 2022 as opposed to when they were originally set up years ago.
“I too received a lot of calls, mostly about access,” Bies said. “The birds move differently than they did when the refuges were set up. Maybe we need to do a review of our refuges and access and what they are accomplishing (now) as opposed to when they were set up,” Bies said.
Kirschenmann said the balance of the benefits of waterfowl refuges and the need for good access for hunters will always be in flux and is a difficult issue to iron out. He said he expects the conversations to continue well into the future.
“These discussions will never go away. We are always talking about those waterfowl refuges, but they are a tough conversation. Some people believe in them, some don’t. But in this particular case the last thing we want to see is additional waterfowl hunting opportunities taken away from people,” Kirschenann said.
The commission voted unanimously to reject the proposal.
Apprentice/mentor deer season start date
The commission also rejected a petition for a change in the start date to the apprentice and mentored deer season. Under the petition, the date would have been changed to Sept. 1.
Justin Allen, who submitted the petition, said the goal was to increase opportunities for young and new hunters to get a start in the activity.
“Basically, moving it to Sept. 1 would give a couple of additional weeks to give the young and new hunters a chance to get out when the weather is conducive to having a good experience, which is key to success,” Allen told the commission. “The additional two weeks in September at the beginning of the season just makes sense to provide additional opportunities for those new and young hunters”
The current start date for apprentice and mentored deer hunting season is Sept. 10 and runs to Jan. 1.
Kirschenmann, who also addressed the commission on the subject, said he applauded the initiative of the petition — Game, Fish and Parks is always looking at ways to get more youth involved in hunting, he said — but he didn’t think a change in the season start date was warranted.
“I don’t know that it’s worth making a change in the season dates for just a little over a week when the current structure seems to work fine,” Kirschenmann said.
Whitmyre said he also appreciated the effort to help youth get started in the activity, but noted the current season is already over 100 days long, and adding a few extra days would not likely result in significant benefits.
“(The season is already) quite an extensive amount of time. I don’t think we’re opening up anything that doesn’t exist in those 120 days. As much as I appreciate him bringing this, I don’t think I can support it,” Whitmyre said.
The rest of the commission agreed, and the petition was rejected by unanimous vote.
The next scheduled meeting for the commission is May 5 and 6 at Custer State Park.