Fishing, hunting and other recreational adventures during the COVID-19 pandemic need to be an individual choice, according to the head of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

Kelly Hepler, secretary of GF&P, on Thursday, April 2, acknowledged public requests to close boat ramps and restrict nonresidents from utilizing South Dakota’s outdoor opportunities. But Hepler said a closure would impact everyone, if it were up to him, as residency wouldn’t matter. He believes each person needs to decide whether they feel comfortable using the outdoors due to health reasons right now.

“If you think recreation -- getting people out and recreating is really necessary to shut down,” he said, “then it will include parks, it will include hunting and fishing.”

The discussion was a focused topic during the regularly scheduled Game, Fish & Parks Department Commission meeting. Earlier in the meeting, five members of the public -- including some local governmental officials -- spoke in favor of closing boat ramps along the Missouri River to nonresidents because their states have more cases of coronavirus.

GF&P Commission Chair Gary Jensen, of Rapid City, opened the discussion explaining that the commissioners, Gov. Kristi Noem and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks have “a shared authority” to restrict or close certain seasons.

Commissioners Doug Sharp, of Watertown, and Robert Whitmyre, of Webster, had somewhat differing opinions on limiting nonresidents on South Dakota’s waters during the pandemic. While there was no official action taken on the subject -- meaning the boat accesses will continue to be open to everyone -- Sharp, Whitmyre and Jensen will form a committee to stay in touch with the department and “get current information,” Jensen said in an interview with The Daily Republic following the meeting.

“I think everybody is concerned,” he said. “The whole thing is obviously very uncertain and disturbing. We’re all trying to do the right thing and the best thing.”

During the meeting, Whitmyre said there is significant concern in the northeast part of South Dakota, where nonresidents typically frequent for fishing and hunting. He’s heard comments from county commissioners, mayors and sheriffs who are concerned nonresidents traveling to South Dakota have a higher chance of bringing COVID-19 due to their states’ outbreak numbers.

Sharp said shutting down anything to nonresidents “is going too far.”

“Because if we’re going to get into who we think is a risk are we going to go down to, ‘If you have more than 10 cases in your county, your county people cannot travel anywhere?’” he said. “But if you have no cases, your people can?”

There was public commentary on the subject from commissioners from Brule and Lyman counties, along with the emergency manager in Aurora County. A citizen from Rapid City also suggested closing or limiting additional turkey hunting season in the Black Hills to nonresidents, a similar move made recently by Nebraska on its turkey hunting season.

Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Chairman Lester Thompson, Jr., also voiced his concerns to the commissioners. Following the meeting, in an interview with The Daily Republic, he said he was in discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers to close the boat ramps near Fort Thompson. Nothing was finalized as of Thursday evening.

“GF&P better start looking at this as a humanity issue instead of just for revenue,” Thompson said, referring to the sale of fishing licenses.

Hepler addressed that topic earlier during the meeting.

“I know some people are just saying we’re keeping things open because we want the money,” he said. “To me, and I’ll be very candid about that, I take that as an insult to the good people who work for GFP. That is not at all what we’re doing. Public safety and the safety of our workers and workforce is paramount.”

Hepler commended the response from Noem and the state’s Department of Health during the pandemic. South Dakota hit 165 positive cases of the virus as of Thursday. Nearby states where people have been traveling from to go fishing include Minnesota (742 positive cases) and Iowa (642 cases.) Hepler said the topic is always being considered as things are changing every day, and he encouraged everyone to follow social distancing guidelines.

“The governor is very clear she’s not going to close down the borders,” Hepler said. “She’s also made it clear she supports hunting and fishing, getting people outdoors and getting people out in our parks. We do, too.”

Youth pheasant season

The commission liked what they heard from Savanah Hendricks.

In March, Hendricks petitioned the commissioners to change the state’s youth pheasant hunting season to include two weekends. The 13-year-old girl who lives in rural Vivian argued that youths have too many activities, such as sports and school work, to get much use out of the current five-day youth season.

On Thursday, the GF&P Commission unanimously approved to extend the youth pheasant season to extend to nine total days. It will begin 21 days before the third Saturday in October.

The policy had not been reviewed since 2008.

“It means a lot to me that I'm making a difference in somebody else's life,” she wrote in an email response to The Daily Republic following the decision. “I've been fortunate to grow up with a family who values hunting and making memories together outdoors. My hope with this change is to get more youth and families outdoors making memories together.

“It may take a long time for the state to see the rewards of this, but through the years I am confident the youth participation numbers will grow. By them adding the five days in between the weekends, it only increases the opportunity for youth to hunt. Twenty-three percent of schools in South Dakota only go to school four days a week, this will also benefit those students! I can't wait until this fall to have a longer opportunity to get in the field with my family!”

Dale Skoog, of Milbank, spoke against extending the youth season during public commentary. He said he’s not against youth hunting, but didn’t think nine days was necessary.