Noem seeks place among outdoor-loving South Dakota governors with pheasant-hunting initiative, but ...

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

South Dakota’s Sportsman in Chief.

That’s what Gov. Kristi Noem called herself in a news release I got a few days back. And I have to say, my first thought was: “Wouldn’t she actually be South Dakota’s Sportswoman in Chief?”

I tend to say “sportsmen” and “sportswomen” when I’m talking about people — men and women — who loved to hunt and fish. But I checked Merriam-Webster and the first and second definitions use “a person” rather than “a man.”

So Noem can be a sportsman is she wants to be, dictionarily speaking, at least.

With that settled, I allowed myself to get a kick out of the “Sportsman in Chief” term. It reminded me of the Mickelson days, when big George would show up places — in particular, the governor’s hunt — wearing a baseball cap that read: “Top Gov.”

It was a takeoff, of course, on a popular movie about that time: Top Gun. Although there were few comparisons between the star of the movie, 5-foot-7, 150-pound Tom Cruise, and our 28th governor, who stood 6-foot-4 and, as he liked to say, weighed an eighth of a ton.

But Mickelson was more than just physically imposing. He was big in other ways, too, including in his connection to South Dakota sportsmen and his commitment to fishing and hunting, particularly that official state shotgunning extravaganza each October known as the governor’s hunt.

The hunt is a big deal. It celebrates our hunting heritage, our reputation as a top — maybe the top, depending on the year — pheasant-hunting destination, tourism in general and our business-friendly climate, since there are always some important business prospects at the hunt.

It was actually a non-hunting governor, Bill Janklow, in the early 1980s who revived, expanded and improved the governor’s hunt begun in the 1950s by a real Top Gun, World War II ace and Medal-of-Honor winner Joe Foss, our 20th governor. Foss brought the outdoors to the capital in a big way, and later served as president of the NRA and hosted ABC’s The American Sportsman for a few years before starting his own syndicated outdoor program, The Outdoorsman.”

And Janklow? Not so much. He had plenty of guns and understood well the importance of hunting. But didn’t hunt. Didn’t fish, either, although he once lamented to me that he might have to give it a try someday if his grandkids demanded it.

There was no such lamentation with Mickelson, who loved the outdoors — hunting, fishing, boating, snowmobiling, skiing. Oh, and did I say hunting? Yes.

During his two terms as governor, Mike Rounds also loved the governor's hunt as well as less-official hunting on birdy ground in Lyman County he owns with a friend and business partner and manages for pheasants and other wildlife.

There’s pretty good evidence that our 33rd governor loves the outdoors, too. A grown-up farm girl and former preserve operator who learned to love hunting on outings with her grandma, Noem has a pretty good sense for the sport and an even better understanding of its importance to South Dakota.

Which doesn’t mean she understands everything, as I pointed out a couple columns ago here on this blog. The problem is the predator-control part of her Second Century Initiative to bolster pheasant numbers in South Dakota and keep the outdoor economy humming.

A free trap give-way that, as near as I can tell, Game, Fish & Parks was pushed into by the governor, is not very popular among sportsmen’s groups. Nor is the related bounty program on targeted nest predators, again run by GF&P, albeit not with much enthusiasm.

Which is why Noem has been encouraged by some in GF&P to reach out to disgruntled sportsmen — who can get disgruntled like few unhappy groups on earth.

So Noem has reached out. She was initially supposed to have lunch with the Black Hills Sportsmen at their regular monthly meeting here in Rapid City earlier this week, to talk about her predator plan.

I planned to attend. But she postponed, perhaps not coincidentally after the circulation of a letter of opposition to her predator plan signed by many state outdoors organizations, including the Black Hills Sportsmen, although Noem says says she got busy with FEMA and flood issues.

There’s a lot of grumbling about the plan in the outdoors groups I know. Noem is right to reach out. But she’s wrong if she things just showing up and explaining some things will smooth the ruffled feathers.

They’re a tough bunch to smooth, especially when it comes to the things they value most, including their beloved hunting and fishing and the wildlife management that underpins it.

Noem is working to reschedule a visit with the Black Hills Sportsmen. And I plan to be there if she does. Meanwhile there’s the letter of opposition and its planned presentation this week at the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission meeting here in Rapid City.

Former GF&P Secretary John Cooper of Pierre is in town to present the letter. Others, including former GF&P Commission Chairman Jeff Olson of Rapid City, will share their opinions, too.

That should give GF&P Chairman Gary Jensen something to consider and report as Noem considers her next move. But after covering South Dakota sportsmen since the 1970s, I can guarantee you this won’t be an easy sell for the new governor.

Her predator plan runs counter to much of what we’ve learned about pheasant and pheasant management over the last 50 years. It was a learning curve that included plenty of pain and conflict, and trial and error. The conclusion was that public money aimed at benefiting pheasants is best spent on habitat development. Period.

And give her credit, that’s not lost on Noem. The bigger focus of her Second Century Initiative is habitat and ways to create and sustain more of it. Which brings us back to the news release announcing that Noem has signed SB 176, a bill that, according to the release, will “increase habitat programs and strengthen the future of pheasant hunting in South Dakota.”

As I understand that bill, it appropriates $1 million that may be used to match private or federal dollars for habitat work. People receiving grant money may not charge fees to hunt. What I don’t understand is how the work will be sustained, without future appropriations.

But I like the commitment to habitat, and there are other habitat components in the Second Century Initiative.

In the release, Noem says: “The first century of pheasant hunting put South Dakota on the map as a destination for every hunter. In recent years, however, pheasant numbers have dropped and habitat lands have diminished. The bill I signed this week is a step to reverse those trends. By investing in habitat preservation and expansion, we can preserve our outdoor traditions and ensure the second century of pheasant hunting is as great as the first.”

I agree on the value of habitat and the reality that bird numbers have dropped. It’s important to point out, however, that this isn’t the first-time pheasant numbers have dropped and habitat has been diminished. The up-and-down cycle — which typically corresponds with a rise and fall in license sales, GF&P revenues and tourism receipts — has been going on for most of the century we have had pheasant hunting.

And it was all tied to the weather and the status of quality habitat. Predators? Sure, they played at role, a tiny one compared to habitat and the weather. That’s not going to change.

And getting back to the “South Dakota’s Sportsman in Chief” term that I liked, Noem said:

“As South Dakota’s Sportsman in Chief, I’m committed to expanding habitat and pheasant hunting opportunities for the next generation. My Second Century Initiative gets kids outside, protects our native grasslands and continues the state’s incredible outdoor legacy.”

I’m all for that. The sportsmen are, too. Which just leaves that pesky predator thing to get settled.

And speaking of which, just as I prepared to file this I got a news release from GF&P announcing it was "rolling out a Trapping Photo Contest" in conjunction with the Nest Predator Bounty Program (yeah, that one) that began on April 1 (again, no fooling).

Apparently five grand prize winners in the contest will receive a GF&P-branded live trap including lures and other items. And GF&P staffer will pick photos to display on the department's social-media pages. Those selected for the social-media displays will receive a prize and also be eligible for the grand prize.

So, there you go -- the latest promotion of trapping and predator control from GF&P.

And, especially, from the Trapper in Chief in the Capitol.

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.