Public process wins as GF&P Commission hits brakes on plan to shift auction proceeds for bighorn management to Noem pheasant plan

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

First things first: the tip.


It was a good one, spoken with an air that was slightly conspiratorial and hopeful that I, an old reporter, might do something to set things right.


Which means, write a story, based on the tip.


I’ve had a few tips in my day. And from experience, I know that once you check them out, hot story tips are rarely the bombshells they seem to be when they land in your email, your voicemail or get mumbled cautiously across a downtown coffee table where you’re having a quiet chat with a source.


Tips are usually a starting point toward a story that usually isn’t quit what it appears to be at first.


But sometimes it's pretty close, when the tip is good and the reporting solid.


So when I got a tip from a reliable source that Gov. Kristi Noem was strong-arming the state Game, Fish & Parks Department into some creative shifting of hundreds of thousands of dollars expected to be raised in a lucrative auction for a high-value bighorn sheep hunting permit, well,  I took some time to listen.


I was intrigued but not quite hyperventilating. So even in my slightly sleepy, semi-retired state of journalism, I made some calls, talked to some people on and off the record and did some online research, which included reviewing some old stories of my own.


Reporters stuff, you know.


I knew this kind of tip wasn't exclusive. So the news would break soon, in one way or another, probably on social media first. And at about the time I was doing some snooping around, the news was being released through a fairly inscrutable GF&P news release and more directly composed emails from the department to certain out door “stakeholders,” especially those with a passion for wild-sheep hunting and management. The stakeholder contacts outlined an official version of the plan, which I presented in the blog story published below this one.


The plan would expand the area that could be hunted with a special bighorn permit auctioned off each year to raise money for bighorn-sheep management in South Dakota. That expanded area would include a hunting unit near — but not including — Badland’s National Park, where some monster bighorn rams are protected from hunters but occasionally stray beyond park borders and that protection.


Ka-boom. One such stray last October was shot by an archer, who had received his permit in a regular drawing for a few hard-to-get sheep licenses. It was the first time those rare permits included the badlands unit. And his ram established a new world record with a bow.


Which made some people hyperventilate. And some of those people have a lot of money.


The big ram drew national attention. And it got people here in South Dakota thinking about the potential to generate more than the $83,000 average in auction proceeds for the one bighorn license — for a hunting unit in the southwestern Black Hills — that Game, Fish & Parks has auctioned off each year through the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation.


Informed speculation in the trophy hunting community concluded that the world record might increase the value of a South Dakota bighorn license, if it included that badlands unit, to several hundred thousand dollars, and perhaps half a million.


Which would be a blessing to the existing wild-sheep management programs in the state, except for one thing: Most of the money was to be shifted to Kristi Noem’s new Second Century Initiative,  a project aimed at bolstering state pheasant numbers that Noem outlined during her January State of the State address.


Still unclear, though, who was pushing the change agenda on the bighorn permit and the use of its auction proceeds. So I sent emails to Noem’s office, to GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler and to GF&P Wildlife Division Director Tony Leif.


I heard back from a couple of Noem staffers, but ended up talking with Leif, who is often in the GF&P-response role. I’ve known and worked with Tony since he was an upland-game biologist in Huron and I was a reporter for the Argus In Sioux Falls. So we tend to speak pretty frankly, or as frankly as someone in Leif's position can speak with a reporter.

And I spoke frankly about the tip I received, much of which he confirmed with one exception: He said the idea came from his staff in looking for ways to fund the Second Century Initiative, not through a cram-down edict from the governor’s office.


Which is not to say that Noem isn’t involved directly. She is.  


“The governor is really interested in this discussion going on in our department,” Leif said. “She too has a strong interest in the opportunities we have with the auction license. We started looking at that auction license and what we could do to enhance that. We figured there’s an opportunity to build on some of the recent positive press we’ve had on the world-record bighorn being shot.”


Things took off from there.


“We put a plan together, visited with the governor’s staff, got concurrence, and particularly since this unique opportunity is out there to give the Second Century Initiative a little boost,” he said.


Things moved quickly after that. And they had to, if the plan were to be approved by the GF&P Commission at its monthly meeting this week in Pierre and put in place in time for the sheep-license auction in Minneapolis in mid-March.


Without a change, the bighorn license to be auctioned off as scheduled. It would would be one of three -- the other two available by drawing only -- in the unit west of Custer. Still a hot-ticket license, of course, but not as hot as it would be if it also covered the area where the world-record was shot. And without commission action, the proceeds would still go to the sheep program exclusively.


So things would have to move fast, which was possible, Leif said, because the commission had the authority to make the needed changes without a regular month or so of public notice and comment. 


But it pretty quickly became appaprent that just because the commission could make those changes in one day didn't mean it was a great idea.


Word spreads quickly among “stakeholders.” And word about the plan and impending commission action spread quickly among outdoor stakeholders, as emotions rose. They shared those emotions with GF&P staffers and especially with members of the GF&P Commission, on the day and the evening before the commission meeting was to start in Pierre at 1 p.m. yesterday.


Some didn’t think the money raised from a bighorn license should be used for other wildlife needs. Others were upset that a more traditional comment period wasn’t to be used and even question it’s legality.


And eventually world reached me again — anotherhot tip, yesterday morning — that commissioners were increasingly uncomfortable with taking that action so quickly, and might be backing off. 

So I called Leif again and said I heard the auction license item would be removed from the commission agenda. He couldn’t confirm or deny that, but said changes were being discussed and that he’d let me know.


The commission meeting started at 1 p.m. central, noon mountain. I would have listened in, but I was scheduled to lector at 12:10 Mass at St. Isaac Jogues in North Rapid. And some things are even more important than bighorn permits.


After all, I was to read a passage from the book fo Sirach a that included this: “Of forgiveness, be not overconfident…”


I have some things that need forgiving. So let’s see, everlasting soul or blog piece? Soul, blog piece? What to choose, what to choose?


To be on the safe side, I went to Mass, then checked with Leif as soon as I got out. He sent me this text:


“Sec Hepler asked the Commission to withdraw the BH Sheep auction license action item and the Commission passed a motion to remove it from the agenda.”


Badabing-badaboom. The public process won, it seemed.


I made a call to Jeff Olson, a former GF&P Commission Chairman and well-traveled big-game hunter, to see what he thought. I had called Olson for a comment on the previous blog piece I wrote and wanted to get his thoughts on the commission decision.


“They did the right thing,” Olson said. “Slowing things down to give more time for public comment is a very good decision.”


It usually is. This is an important issue to bighorn-sheep hunters and to bighorn sheep management. There might still be a way to share some of the money raised if the auctioned bighorn license can cover the badlands unit next year.


And if it does raise $300,000 or $400,000 or more, that would easily cover the $83,000 average for sheep management that the existing permit has been raising each year. At least that much, and probably more, could remain with bighorn programs while the rest went to the pheasant initiative, named to celebrate the start of the second century of pheasant seasons in South Dakota.


There are catches in most things, however. And the catch here seems to be that money raised from the sheep-permit auction must be used for sheep, or at least big game. Leif said it wouldn’t be too difficult to use the money in programs that benefit big-game populations while also benefiting upland birds, including pheasants.


But that’s yet to be discussed and decided. For now, it looks like the regular bighorn season and permits will remain in place for next fall. That means GF&P will issue three permits in the bighorn hunting unit west of Custer along the Wyoming-South Dakota line. Two of those will be offered in a highly competitive drawing and one will be auctioned to wealthy bidders.


And the fourth permit, the one for the badlands unit, will be available through a competitive drawing, as it was last year — with plausible potential for another monster ram.


All good? Yeah, I'd say, although my original tipster maintains that Noem was the driving force in all this, and that it was more of a “push from the top” than Leif will admit.


For now, though, I only know what I’ve reported — at least until that next “bombshell” tip lands.



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.