Mr. Chairman, members of the commission, I'm here to introduce you to the back of my head

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Backing my way into comments to the GF&P Commission on snares and dogs

There were some problems, I’ll admit, with my first open-forum comments to the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission.

I forgot to introduce myself, for one. I forgot to say where I’m from or offer the standard greeting of respect: “Chairman Jensen, members of the commission and Secretary Hepler.” And I spent about half of my allotted five-minute comment period with my back to the commission, talking to members of the audience.
In my defense, I knew a lot of them. And I had some things to, uh, share.

Oh, and the microphone on the witness table and the public-broadcast live stream? Yeah, I didn’t pay much attention to those, either.

But I did take time to shoot a selfie at the witness table, with several members of the commission grinning behind me. And I announced before I snapped that shot that after more than 40 years of covering the commission, I was making my first appearance before the board as a commentator.

On snares. And hunting dogs. On public land.

My springer spaniel, Pogo, got snared on public land back in the early 1990s. And after snares came up at the last commission meeting, I wrote about Pogo's experience in a previous blog post.

Meanwhile, Back at the Commission

In front of the commission last week down in Custer State Park, I explained that I’m no longer working full time as a reporter, but have a contract to blog and offer radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Also, I said, I’m once again writing a column for the Rapid City Journal, every other Sunday on the editorial page and once a month in sports about outdoor subjects.

That’s still journalism, and I’m still obligated to conduct myself like a professional journalist, which I try hard to do. But in my semi-retired state, I’m also free to do things I hadn’t been free to do before — like run off at the mouth in front of the commission.

Speaking of which, watch out South Dakota legislators: I could be coming to a committee room near you! When is the last time someone testified before you while facing the other direction? Could be effective.

Anyway, I explained my current status to commissioners, with the disclaimer that I didn’t speak for SDPB or for the Rapid City Journal, but adding, “I do speak for all the sportsmen of South Dakota.” Then I noticed they seemed to think I was serious about that “all the sportsmen” thing, so I clarified. “No, not really. I’m only speaking for myself.”

Mostly, as it turned out, with my back to them.

And I have to admit, it was kind of fun, after all these years. And I do mean, “all these years.” I wrote my first story about the Game, Fish & Parks Department business in 1974. I covered my first GF&P Commission meeting a few years later. And I’ve been covering them both ever since.

Sometimes happily. Almost always with interest. And occasionally with frustration or, even worse, abject boredom. No, wait, that’s the Board of Regents. Boredom at GF&P Commission meetings is pretty rare, for me at least, because the subject matter is close to my shotguns, my fishing rods and my heart.

Getting Old While Covering the Outdoors

The first story I wrote about GF&P was with a graduate student working on a paddlefish project. That graduate student is now retired, after a long, productive career with GF&P in fisheries management. I covered other GF&P staffers who have since retired, or died, and then I covered their GF&P-employed sons. I’m still covering some them, in fact. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, or simply delusional, but I’d like to live and work long enough to cover some grandsons of people I covered. I’m not all that far off.

I’ve told people on many occasions that I covered politics because I was paid to and I covered the outdoors and natural resources because I wanted to. I was paid to cover outdoors, too, but that wasn’t the main thing. No, it was something else, something that started as early as bullhead fishing at the North Dam with my dad, and with that first rooster pheasant I bagged with my .410 Stevens, which dad gave me for my 10th birthday.

It was all those hours along the shorelines at Reliance Dam, tempting those bass and bluegills and the occasional crappie-rig-shredding northern pike. It was that morning on the Missouri River below Jim Boyle’s house in Chamberlain as the sun came up and Dad and I were into such a hot walleye bite we couldn’t keep two lines in the water.

I remember that smile he wore, the one that said: "I love this, and I love you."

He loved me enough to rise extra early before a long day of farm work to take me fishing or hunting. Many times.

Such things can change a kid, stick with him, help shape the man he will become, even if he loses his father as a teenager. And those things did stick with me, change me, shape the man I would become. I hope in a good way.

They shape other things, too. I'm closer to my life-long friends Larry and Clem because of time together like that, because we huddled together in hard, cold gales on snowy goose-hopeful mornings on the river bluffs owned by Amy Carpenter, a sweet, obliging tribal grandma who granted us access to prime pass-shooting tuft for the simple price of a smile, a please and a thank you.

It's a hard-to-clearly define blessing, this abiding outdoor love. Whatever it is that keeps you coming back to wild places also helps you understand at a cellular level that your life is incomplete without those places and the wild things they sustain, which in so many ways sustain you.

Who needs a paycheck to write about such things? Yet, wonder of wonders, I was paid to do just that, to write outdoors columns and to cover outdoor-related stories that often included GF&P business. I tried to cover them as fairly and accurately as possible, and to keep my mouth shut during public-comment periods at monthly commission meetings.

Mostly I did that, although I have been known to slip into an editorial or two out in the hallway from time to time.

Old Enough to Let Your Tongue Wag

I believe I’m now beyond the keep-your-mouth-shut stage. So, after I listened to a string of trappers argue against a commission proposal to further restrict the use of wire snares on public land, followed by a sportsmen’s-club representative and an Audubon Society advocate who supported additional restrictions, I scribbled my name on a sign-up sheet and joined the fray.

I spoke of Pogo’s experience on that public ground a quarter century ago. And I noted that such dog snaring is not really such an unusual occurrence, as most trappers who use snares will admit. With some regularity, they catch and release dogs, in almost every instance without serious damage to the dogs.

Informed speculation is that because most dogs are accustomed to being on a leash, so they don’t struggle against snares as, say, a coyote does. That means they aren’t likely to choke themselves to death with the effort, as a wild animal such as a coyote would. Most dogs, it seems, just sit or lie down and wait, unhappily to be sure, for human help to arrive.

Russ Cameron of Brookings, who has been trapping for more than 50 years, spoke to this when he told the commission: “I’ve caught a lot of dogs in snares. And I’ve let a lot of dogs go. The only problem is when I open the door to my pickup, then I’ve got a new friend.”

Cameron says he takes time to locate the owners of that “new friend,” even if it requires some work. That can mean checking in with farm and rural homes in the area.

I feel thankful that Pogo did as most dogs do when snared. She didn’t resist strongly. And while she seemed to be chocking when I found her, that might be because she got excited when I arrived, and I got excited. She was fine after I got the snare off.

But it’s not always the case. A hunter from Dillon, Mont., lost a hunting dog to a snare. And as soon as I get the story from him, I’ll share it here. Three Saint Bernards died in a terrible string of fatal snares near Casper, Wyo., a few years back. And I’d guess there have been others, although none that we know of here in South Dakota.

Trappers at the commission meeting were correct in saying that they have a right to use public land, just as pheasant hunters and others do. They were also right to say that other threats, especially and including heat stroke, are more dangerous to hunting dogs than are snares. I’ve covered those stories in the past. Some were gruesome.

Still, it’s no fun having your dog snared, and there is some danger of injury and even death. That’s the point I tried to make, among others, in a presentation to the commission that I’d call scattergun in style. I’m easily distracted, you see, and so I first had to respond to state Rep. Tim Goodwin, who had testified against the stricter snare restrictions shortly before I got up.

A Word or Two from Rep. Goodwin

Goodwin lives in the Black Hills and has made a bit of a reputation here as an experienced, effective mountain-lion hunter. But he also has an East River waterfowl hunting spot on Lake Thompson, where he had a dog caught in snares, twice. Both times the dog was fine. Adding to snare restrictions only adds regulations, Goodwin said.

“We’re a conservative state. We don’t need more regulations,” he said.

He also said snares won’t be a problem as long as hunters have control of their dogs, which to Goodwin means having them nearby. If they don’t, he said, the hunter is being irresponsible and maybe putting their dogs at risk.

I had to respond to that, pointing out that he was talking about a waterfowl situation and a retrieving breed of dog, probably a Lab. "Close by" is different in that situation that it is when you're hunting pheasants and grouse on often-hunted public land in open terrain, where hunters need to cover ground and dogs need to range out to find and follow scent. That's true with springers, which I hunt, and even more relevant with pointing dogs that really love to roam.

So a hard-hunting dog could be 50 or 100 yards, or even more, away when it hits the snare. Depending on the cover, it might take a while to find. Things could happen in that while. Bad things.

That was the concern that prompted the commission proposal for tighter regulations on snares, following reports of two dogs caught in snares on public land. Both those dogs survived, but the commissioners decided the issue needed exploration. That’s what they’re doing now. And it’s what the commission often does, and often has since I started covering it.

People tend to overreact to commission proposals that are often just officially constructed scoping sessions. I sense that’s what this one is, a chance to hear more and learn more and discuss more about a subject that probably deserves the attention.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll change much, if anything, at least not right away. But it means they’ll understand the issues better. And maybe so will the public, which matters.

Snares dominated the open forum, which was begun with comments by Blair Waite, a guy who has been around outdoor issues in South Dakota for about as long as I have. He just managed to keep a lot more of his hair along the way.

Credible Sources from the Trapping Community

A former state trapper and conservation officer who still works part time in law enforcement at Custer State Park, Waite was a young man speaking for the South Dakota Trappers Association when I first interviewed him for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls sometime in the early 1980s.

He’s a credible source. And I pay attention when he talks. So I was listening as Waite spoke against most of the snare proposal. As is, the snare ban runs from May 1 to Nov. 13 on public lands and improved road rights-of-way statewide.

The proposal would drop that restriction west of the Missouri River, which trappers like. But the proposal would extend the ban in counties east of the Missouri River through the end of the pheasant season, which traditionally is the first Sunday in January.

That will keep East River trappers off public land at a point when fur is in prime condition, Waite said. Waite suggested a compromise of Dec. 1 instead.

“By this time the WPAs and GPAs are pretty wore out,” he said. “By the time December comes, there are few hunters using those places.”

I couldn’t help but ask Waite when I had my turn where those empty GPAs and WPAs are. Because the ones I hunt each December are still pretty busy, with resident and non-resident hunters. I also noted — I think while actually facing the commission — that most of my bird hunting now is west of the Missouri River, so dropping the snare restriction West River would hit me directly.

And I suggested that the two dogs snaring incidents that were reported were not all the incidents that occurred. Tom Krafka supported that notion when he offered support for increased snare restrictions from the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club. Krafka said that of 30 club members at a recent meeting, three owned dogs that had been caught in snares.

“It might be that more dogs are caught in snares than we think,” Krafka said.

It Isn't Just About Hunting Dogs

Also supporting the increased regulations, and a lot more, was Nancy Hilding, a well-known representative of the Prairie Hills Audubon Society from Black Hawk. Hilding argued that the need to restrict snares is about more than hunting dogs. She said plenty of people besides hunters — birders, hikers, photographers, and more — use public land, including road rights-of-way, in the Black Hills and elsewhere, and often take dogs along.

Hilding also supported another part of the commission proposal, which would require all snares and traps set on public land as delineated to be marked with the owner’s name and address or a personal ID number kept by GF&P. Hilding said that would help identify “bad actors” among the trapping community. She also pointed out that 43 of 50 states have laws to identify the owners of traps.

Trappers general opposed the ID idea, saying it would be a headache to handle and would add to trapping costs.

A highlight of the open forum was the appearance by Mark Steck and his dog, Sadie, who served as a model for a couple of snare demonstrations by Steck, showing why it’s unlikely that dogs will die in a snare. 

Steck is a former state park manager who was at Newton Hills when I used to write stories about that place for the Argus Leader. I considered him a credible source, too, even though in the spirit of full disclosure I should tell you he’s a trapper of 40 years who runs his own snare-supply business. So he has his biases, which he would argue are well informed.

Steck said most snares in most situations don’t pose the threat of serious injury or death to dogs, particularly when owners are nearby.

“An unattended dog just isn’t a problem,” he said. “An unattended dog may be.”

The commission took one step to address that potential by adding another option to the proposal, which the commission will consider and likely vote on June 7 during its meeting in Aberdeen: banning year round on GPAs and WPAs specifically the use of any snare “using springs or other powering devices that hold the snare closed.” That ban would apply to above-the-water snares only.

Most snares don’t have those devices, so that proposal is a proactive, rather than a response to past snaring of dogs on public land with more traditional snares. Still, it might save a dog someday.

The Need for Public Education

Trappers suggested overall that the better solution to concerns about snares might be education, since hunters often are surprised to find snares on public land and sometimes aren’t sure how to release a snare. They said that education might include a video and/or a page in the annual GF&P hunter handbook explaining snare use on public land with details on how to release a dog that is snared.

An officer for the state trappers association also said trappers themselves would help by working to educate other trappers to make sure they were setting snares in ways designed to reduce conflicts with hunters and pose threats to their dogs. He got support from several ranchers, particular those from sheep country, who talked about the damage coyotes can cause to livestock and the value of snares used by trappers in controlling predators.

The ranchers and the trappers were against more regulations, fearing that they would play into the hands of anti-trapping interests working across the nation. And several said too many regs could mean fewer trappers in the field, which one trapper said could mean “then there won’t be any pheasants on public land.”

Not true, of course. Sure, predators kill pheasants and other wildlife. And sure, predators destroy nests. If you have a pheasant-hunting preserve with a lot of stocked birds concentrated in an area, predator control is probably essential. And it can help in the overall management of wildlife populations anywhere.

But overall it's simply not a determining factor in pheasant and grouse numbers. Habitat and weather conditions are. That fundamental principle of wildlife management has been established an re-established over generations.

So let’s not get off track. The issues here are that trappers have a right to use public ground just as my current springer spaniel, Rosie and I do. And the commission is trying to make sure we can both use our land appropriately and safely, and also make room for someone who wants to use that property without packing a gun, but maybe packing a dog.

That might mean more restrictions. Or it might mean a lot more education. What it should mean, always, is that we keep talking about these things.

And I’m especially interested in that these days, because now the “we” can actually include me.

Whichever way I face.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.