YANKTON -- As pheasant season begins today, hunters will pour into fields across South Dakota, hoping open space and fresh air washes away concerns of COVID-19 currently gripping the state.

But while hunters are attempting to avoid contact with others, Game, Fish and Parks Department conservation officers often do not have much choice in the matter, and hunting season is among the busiest times of the year for officers. So, while the GF&P is encouraging hunters to head outside, conservation officers are attempting to prepare accordingly for any potential contact that could create the spread of COVID-19 this fall.

“Parks and wildlife staff have resumed as close to normal operations as we can,” said Sam Schelhaas, GF&P law enforcement chief. “The majority of our work takes place outside and the majority of our work takes place 6 feet from an individual. In those times when a conservation officer may step in a little closer to somebody to get a license, we encourage that to be a brief contact and we encourage proper (personal protective equipment) when it’s relevant.”

Hunters accounted for 38.2 percent of field contacts for GF&P conservation officers last season, a distant second to anglers, which accounted for 19,928 of 32,822 field contacts. But GF&P law enforcement annual reports also show that hunters typically account for the most violations and license suspensions.

During the last five years, 30 percent of violations have come from hunters -- although the number has dropped from 873 in 2015 to 513 in 2019 -- and suspensions are consistently highest among hunters, accounting for 54.3 percent during the last five years.

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License numbers have increased across the board for South Dakotans this year, meaning the chances for added contacts in the field for conservation officers is likely to jump as well. Fishing license numbers rose 15,000 compared to last year for South Dakotans, according to the GF&P on Sept. 30, and hunting licenses are trending upward as well.

Combination licenses that allow those over 19 years old to fish and hunt small game have risen by 4,000 this year, while small-game-only licenses are currently up by 500. Combination licenses for non-residents have also grown by 500.

“We’re up considerably looking at the three-year average,” GF&P Deputy Secretary Kevin Robling said. “Even though last year was a down year, the years prior were not and we average those out. So, we are trending, for the most part, above the three-year average in every license category and that’s great to see.”

Procedures in the field

The GF&P employs 80 conservation officers statewide, which means a prolonged illness could create a bind. Schelhaas says that is not a concern at the moment, and because conservation officers are split up by region, it would simply take some shifting to make up for any absences.

“We have gotten a feel for the way we need to work, for the way our community’s expectations are and what the department’s expectations are to find that balance between keeping everyone safe and our officers safe as well,” said Schelhaas, who was formerly a district supervisor in Yankton. “The hunting season shouldn’t be a slowdown for the services that we offer. We’re ready for it. We’ve been busy throughout the whole summer and we’re busy throughout the fall.”

As South Dakota continues to struggle with COVID-19 spread, ranking atop national per capita case lists and with more than 7,300 active cases as of Friday, officers are carrying personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Masks, hand sanitizer and gloves are not mandatory for officers, but masks are expected in certain situations and both are available to citizens that request them during contact with officers.

Officers are expected to maintain a distance of 6 feet when applicable during a contact. Upon checking a license, an officer will grab or look at the license and then step back to the 6-foot distance recommended by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are questions asked if you sense someone doesn’t want you to get too close, they would like a mask or something to the effect,” Schelhaas said. “Typically, as law enforcement officers, 6 feet is a good distance to be doing a lot of interactions anyways.”