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Game, Fish and Parks official says deer hunting legislation, CWD are 2019's big issues

Kelly Hepler is the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department secretary. Handout photo

PIERRE, S.D. - It was in June that South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department staff first presented what would become one of the ugliest episodes they, or the commission that oversees their work, had ever been a part of.

The rule, presented by special projects coordinator Kevin Robling, would have overhauled the way the department distributes deer hunting licenses to the state’s hunters. The idea was to get more hunters the licenses they want more often.

The problem was that in accomplishing its goal, the rule change would have forced hunters to pick one of the four most popular firearms seasons to apply for a license in during the first draw. In the current system, hunters can apply for a license in up to six seasons and have the chance to draw licenses in the first draw for each one.

Being forced to make a choice between seasons didn’t sit well with a vocal contingent of the state’s most passionate deer hunters. And once the rule was officially proposed, many of those hunters took to social media, comment sections and a host of other means to attack the plan, the commission and GFP staff.

“2018 was a challenging year,” department secretary Kelly Hepler said last week about the year that had been and what’s on tap for 2019. “There have been a lot of longstanding issues that came to a head.”

While the deer licensing issue garnered the most vociferous public reaction, and because of that still hasn’t been finished, there were some equally momentous decisions and work done in 2018. For example, it was the first full year for the new laws surrounding non-meandered waters, which allow landowner's to close some lakes that have formed over private property.

Fewer than 4,000 acres of water have been closed to the public. And while some lakes such as Reetz Lake have been reopened with what some might call onerous restrictions, Hepler said, the department’s goal to keep open or reopen as many non-meandered lakes as possible has been fairly successful.

“I think, in hindsight, the first year went well,” he said.

That success, Hepler said, is due to developing relationships with the state’s private landowners. Those relationships have been a big priority of Hepler’s since he was named to his post in 2015.

It has not an easy task in a deep-red state where antipathy toward government of any form is often celebrated. It’s even more complicated given the sometimes contentious relationship between hunters who want more access to land to hunt on and private landowners who are looking for ways to make more money and feel inundated by disrespectful recreationists.

Hepler said there are many hunters in the state who feel like he’s pivoted the department’s focus too far toward landowner interests and away from hunters who, after all, foot the bill for almost all of the wildlife management in South Dakota. Still, Hepler said, roughly 80 percent of the state’s landmass is privately owned. Without landowners on board with wildlife conservation, he said, habitat shortages can’t be fixed.

“We have to have those relationships,” Hepler said. “We have to show them (landowners) that habitat really does pay.”

The new year, 2019, doesn’t look to be any easier on GFP staff. The deer hunting license debate will take center stage at the Jan. 10 GFP Commission meeting in Pierre. At it’s December meeting a few tweaks were made to the rule proposal, which had been stopped by the legislature’s rules review committee. It’ll be the third time the rule proposal will be up for a public hearing.

Hepler said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some form of deer hunting legislation introduced during the 2019 legislative session either.

A related and equally fraught issue — what hunting opportunities should be available to nonresidents — will start getting more attention in the spring. A work group has been put together to study the issue and likely will bring some recommendations to the commission in April or May.

Responding to Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain infection that has been found to have a tremendous impact on deer populations, also is on tap for the first half of 2019. Department staff have been studying the issue throughout 2018 and the commission recently formed a work group to devise some recommendations for how to slow or stop the spread of CWD within South Dakota.

“Ideally we need to do something in the next six to seven months,” Hepler said.

It won’t be easy.

One of the big problems is that CWD is a problem for more than just wild deer herds. The disease is caused by mutated proteins called prions, which are virtually impossible to destroy, so equipment used to slaughter an infected deer can’t be made safe. To be clear, there have been no documented cases of CWD infecting humans but because the prions can’t be destroyed and can actually remain in soil for decades, improperly disposed of deer parts can actually spread the disease to places it hasn’t been found before. And CWD has been shown to devastate deer populations.

The Game, Fish and Parks Department doesn’t regulate game processors, nor does the department regulate deer farms, where CWD first was found. Both meat processors and deer farms are regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Hepler said he’ll be sitting down with Kim Vanneman, the new secretary of agriculture, as soon as possible in part to talk about CWD. Vanneman was named to her post by South Dakota’s Gov.-elect Kristi Noem who has decided to retain Hepler.

That a new governor will be taking office Jan. 5 is not lost on Hepler. A new administration means new priorities but, so far, the transition has been going well and some things likely won’t change. Such as the department’s continued focus on improving wildlife habitat.

“There’s a clear excitement in her voice to get to work on that,” Hepler said of Noem.