A state-sanctioned pheasant protection program that pays South Dakota youths and adults $10 for every raccoon, skunk and other predator they trap has led to the killing of more than 134,000 animals in the past three years with no scientific evidence the program is working.

Known as the Nest Predator Bounty Program, the effort to boost pheasant and duck populations by paying trappers to kill animals that eat the eggs and hatchlings of pheasants and ducks began in 2019 and recently completed its third year of operation. The program that takes place for a few months during the spring pheasant nesting season has been approved for another year in 2022.

Some state officials, including Gov. Kristi Noem, who first implemented the program, and new Game, Fish & Parks Secretary Kevin Robling, see the bounty program as an effective method to reduce predation on pheasants and also encourage young people to move away from playing computer games and take up trapping as a hobby instead. South Dakota is home to a lucrative but steadily declining pheasant hunting industry that generated nearly $300 million in direct spending in the state in 2016, a majority of that from non-resident hunters.

Noem, Robling and a majority of members of the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission, the policymaking arm of state wildlife management, want the program to continue.

The bounty program has seen a recent spike in youth participation, Robling said.

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“It’s really a success story when you look at enhancing our trapping traditions and outdoor heritage,” he said.

Robling acknowledges there is no data or concrete evidence to show that the bounty program has improved pheasant or duck numbers or enhanced successful nesting rates, but he remains convinced it is working.

“As far as quantifying pheasant abundance, we don’t have any research design set up for that,” Robling said. “But we are confident that this bounty program is enhancing nest success.”

Opponents of the program are less confident that paying youths and adults to kill five species of animals is a proper way to boost pheasant and duck populations.

Ty Burggraff of South Dakota signals his excitement over receiving free animal traps from the state of South Dakota, which is paying trappers to catch and kill animals that prey on pheasants and ducks. (Photo courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks)
Ty Burggraff of South Dakota signals his excitement over receiving free animal traps from the state of South Dakota, which is paying trappers to catch and kill animals that prey on pheasants and ducks. (Photo courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks)

Gary Jensen, a Rapid City lawyer, just completed his time as a member of the GFP Commission. He most recently served as chair of the commission and voted against the resolution to extend the bounty program.

“There’s no science that supports it,” Jensen said. “The department can’t show any evidence on the bounty program and it doesn’t have any program in place to determine if it’s increasing pheasant numbers.”

The bounty program was first implemented in 2019 by Noem as part of her Second Century Initiative, aimed at protecting and expanding pheasant habitat and populations in the state.

So far, the state has spent about $2.4 million on the program, which is funded through hunting, fishing and trapping license fees.

Half of the costs, about $1.2 million, have been paid in bounties to program participants (payments were $10 per animal in 2019 and 2021; they were $5 per animal in 2020.) Another $960,000 was spent in the first year on a program to give away 16,500 traps for free to about 5,000 people who requested them. Personnel costs totaled about $217,000 over the first two years.

On a basic level, the program works like this. Adults licensed to trap or youths who want to participate bait traps from April through July to capture animals, which are then typically killed with a rifle. The tails of the animals are cut off, collected and submitted to the state at designated locations. Participants are then paid $10 for each qualifying tail.

Target animals include raccoons, the most frequently bountied animals, as well as skunks, opossums, red foxes and badgers. The carcasses of the animals, which are not good to eat, are discarded, though some may have pelts removed first. The state encourages participants to bury the carcasses but there are no requirements to do so, Robling said.

In 2019, the first year of the bounty program, 54,471 animals were killed; in 2020, the number was 26,390; and in 2021, 53,728 animals were killed. Raccoons make up almost 80% of the roughly 134,600 animals killed under the program so far.

About 91% of the bounties paid were in the East River region of South Dakota, where pheasants are most prevalent. Program participants in Minnehaha County have consistently been the top bounty recipients.

In March 2020, the GFP Commission received about 400 public comments regarding the bounty program, more than 90% of those in opposition.

Robling said the bounty program has encouraging more young people to become active in the outdoors. In the first year, 11% of bounty program participants were under age 18. That percentage rose 13% the second year, and in 2021, 29% of the 2,800 participants in the bounty program were under 18, Robling said.

Research on predator control efforts and bounties is inconclusive but does not generally show program successes.

One study published in 2016 in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” reviewed 12 other studies of predator-control programs to protect livestock in North America and Europe. The review found that six predator-removal efforts (two lethal, four non-lethal) ultimately led to successful protection of livestock; two led to a greater predation on livestock, and four had no effect.

Robling provided News Watch with links to two research articles indicating that predator control can be a successful component of protecting pheasants and boosting nesting success.

One article, a 2011 master’s thesis paper written by a student at South Dakota State University, compared pheasant and duck brood success on “control” plots of land where predator removal did not occur to brood success on “treatment” plots where predators, primarily coyotes, were removed by trapping.

Statistical analysis of nest success “for both ducks and pheasants indicated that there was no difference … between control sites and treatment sites,” the paper concluded.

Extensive research and reviews of previous predator-bounty programs have revealed a consistent pattern of failure, said Gilbert Proulx, director of science at Alpha Wildlife Research & Management, a consulting firm in Canada.

"Bounties are not well understood and are not truly successful,” Proulx said. “If you look at the history of animal bounties across North America, they did not create the result we expected, and often, there are unexpected consequences.”

Former GFP secretary John Cooper wrote a detailed letter to Noem and the GFP commission in March 2019 opposing the bounty program and in particular that the program was not put through the typical process of vetting by either the commission or the public.

Cooper said he never received a response.

“This particular set of circumstances was really disheartening for me, that the commission was cut out of an extremely important decision-making process,” Cooper said. “It was a bad mistake, and we called her [Noem] out on it, and she didn’t like it.”

Robert Whitmyre is a farmer from Webster who was appointed to the GFP Commission in 2019. He voted to extend the program through at least 2022.

Though he acknowledges that his evidence is entirely anecdotal, Whitmyre said he had seen more pheasants and waterfowl on his farm since the bounty program began and believes that removing predators is worthwhile.

Sara Parker of Sioux Falls is co-founder of South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together, which opposes the bounty program.

“This is killing for the sake of killing, because there [are] no scientific studies to support it,” she said.

Parker questions whether using money to entice children to trap and kill animals is an appropriate goal for a state-funded program.

“It’s disturbing and a little heartbreaking,” Parker said. “Of all the things to do outside, I’m not sure why this is the thing you would encourage kids to do in the outdoors. With that amount of money, there is a lot you could do to get kids outdoors.”