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Noem and the boys: They had a lot to talk about, beginning with that pesky predator-control program
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Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden watches Gov. Kristi Noem talk to BH Sportsmen

Consider this a conversation between Kristi Noem and the boys.

And understand, of course, that “boys” is a relative term, applied here to a bunch of men who range in age from just a hint of gray to Social Security dependent, but manage — whatever their actual age — to maintain a giddy adolescent’s joy about their time outdoors.

They can be a two-faced bunch, however, in a good way, also showing the stern countenance of concerned adults with a powerful commitment to protecting the wild places and wild things they love.

Our first-year governor saw both faces of the boys, with an emphasis on the stern and protective, during a recent meeting with members of the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club here in Rapid City.

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They had a lot to talk about during a free-wheeling conversation that included Noem’s controversial nesting-predator-control program, the need for more wildlife habitat and more public-hunting access and the declining number of resident hunters in the fields.

They also touched on the conflict between commercial interests and the average outdoor Joe, how to build walleye numbers on Lake Oahe, the question of whether the state needs a fish hatchery on the Missouri River, and how the new governor should interact with the old guard of South Dakota sportsmen.

Pretty good stuff, all told. Which is good, because Noem had some public relations work to do.


First, there was resentment over a lack of sportsmen input

Club members resented the way Noem pushed through — without a process for public comment and review — a controversial nesting-predator program now being operated and paid for, with sportsmen’s dollars, by the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.

There was also some anger and frustration over her attempt, again through GF&P and without necessary public input, to change an auction-fundraising program for select bighorn sheep permits used to raise money for bighorn research and management.

Opposition from sportsmen, expressed to the appointed GF&P Commission, led Noem and GF&P officials to back off on changes planned for the auction program for at least a year, meaning it will be thoroughly discussed before being started.

During her meeting with Black Hills Sportsmen, Noem said the predator-bounty program couldn’t have been a complete shock since she spoke of it during her gubernatorial campaign, which she did. And she noted that GF&P officials didn’t need input from the public to establish the program, which included the give-way of thousands of live traps and the directive that GF&P pay at bounty of $10 per tail on raccoons, skunk, fox, possum and badgers trapped and turned in after April 1. No fooling.

(OK, I know, I’ve used that “no fooling” thing before. But I like it, so you might see it again.)

But back to Noem, she made it clear that GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler, a member of Noem’s cabinet, and other agency leaders had the authority to act on their own, without the public process, at least on these programs their likely cost of about $1.5 million.

To that, former Black Hills Sportsmen President Tom Krafka said: “I don’t think anybody here is arguing that they didn’t have the authority. But just because they have the authority doesn’t make it right.”

Noem seemed perplexed by that and wondered if Krafka was saying that “every program” or initiative had to be opened up to public comment before being established.

“I just wonder if I were secretary of Game, Fish & Parks, how would I know what comes forward for public comment?” she said.


They don't really need public input before bathroom break, but ...

Krafka said with a smile that the policy had been that GF&P officials “can’t go to the bathroom without it,” which was a playful exaggeration based on the reality of expectations. GF&P has a history — shaped in part by sportsmen’s demands — of prior consultation on big-deal changes or initiatives with the people who pay most of the wildlife-related bills.

“We want assurances from you that you haven’t changed the way things happen,” Krafka said

To which Noem responded: “Well, we are going to try some new things, or things will continue to go downhill.”

I guessed at the time that Noem was referring primarily to declining numbers of hunters in South Dakota. Especially resident hunters. And those numbers have dropped, from levels that used to top 100,000 to less than 60,000 in 2017.

The cause is a lot more complicated than predators, however, and the solutions a lot more involved than free traps and $10 tail bounties. The “downhill” question is worthy of a separate story, and I’ll offer that soon.

But for now back to the boys and the governor, and the conversation and Noem’s statement that sportsmen better get ready to “try some new things.” Those things have already included, of course, the free-traps-and-tail-bounty program. Noem said it will be evaluated at the end of the year to see if it was effective, not just at trapping more predators but especially at engaging more people in the outdoors.

“Did we get people interested? Did we see more people out there? Did we sell more trapping licenses? Were these new people coming into the fold and enjoying the outdoors who didn’t before?” she said.

Classes for new trappers at GF&P's Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City since the predator program began gave some indication of the enthusiasm and involvement Noem is looking for. Outdoor Campus West naturalist Keith Wintersteen told Noem during the meeting that in seven years at OCW 12 people attend trapping programs. But in one month since the predator program began, 99 people turned out for four trapping programs, Wintersteen said.

"There were single parents with children, grandparents with children, all expressed gratitude for the program," he said. "I wanted to give you thanks from the people who were able to attend those programs."

Noem clearly loved that report. But it's only one piece of a puzzle that must be put together at the end of the year to get a sense for the program's worth and what might or might not come next.

“All that has to be evaluated," she said. "Because I’m not interested in watching hunting and fishing go away on my watch. I’m just not.”

I can put her mind at ease there: Not to worry, governor. It won’t. Whatever Gov. Noem does or doesn’t accomplish with her wildlife initiatives, hunting and fishing will not go away on her watch. It probably won’t even change dramatically, although if Noem stays in office for two terms, pheasants are likely to bounce back up. They always have.


Noem argues it's all about sustaining a way of life

But back to the meeting, and Noem’s arguments in favor of her overall Second Century Initiative, including the predator stuff as well as the more widely accepted, and likely more beneficial, plans to increase wildlife habitat and public-hunting access. Whatever the specifics or priorities, it has to be directed at getting more people outdoors and selling more licenses, Noem said.

“Honestly, if you guys want to sustain our way of life, we need to be selling more licenses. We need to getting people out for the weekend, enjoying the outdoors and spending time with our kids,” she continued. “It helps us economically. It helps our wildlife. It helps us raise more dollars for research. It helps us get better habitat out there, so it’s a win, win for everything. And for South Dakota it’s a huge part of our economy too.”

And the whole change part? Noem said she understands it’s hard.

“And I get that new programs are questioned and evaluated, and we should look at that hard. But I don’t want us to be scared to try something different than we’ve been doing. Because the facts are, our statistics aren’t great. And they aren’t even good, for where they should be. And I want to have a state program that prioritizes habitat. I want to have a state program that gets people encouraged to go outside and gets them participating. I don’t think you guys disagree with me on that. I think we’re disagreeing on method, but …”

Krafka seemed to agree with much of that, but wanted to clarify his core concern:

“The only thing is, we just wanted to be a part of the conversation,” he said

By then, Noem seemed willing to concede that the conversation during the formation of her new programs wasn’t as broad based as it might have been.

“OK, we can do a better job of that. I know for fact we can do a better job of that,” she said. “And you’ve got my commitment, we’ll do a better job of that, absolutely.”


Elk foundation worries about impacts on raffle program

That seemed to take some of the edge off the atmosphere, although Noem was pressed on related points. They included questions by Jerry Hirschoff of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation about the potential impacts of Noem’s Hunting for Habitat Program and a planned raffle system with application fees for a selection of high-demand big-game licenses.

For about 30 years, the elk foundation has been working with GF&P raffling off an elk tag to raise funds for programs and projects that benefit elk and other wildlife. Hirschoff said he was worried that new raffle system might hurt the elk-program funding.

Noem said the Hunt for Habitat raffle system and a plan to restructure the existing bighorn-sheep-tag auction system so it’s more lucrative for the state should add to the funding for big-game species rather than reduce it.

“We are going to use this as an opportunity to get more attention on South Dakota,” she said. “So I would say if anything you should have the opportunity to raise more money.”

The money thing, though, is a double-edged sword. It’s important for our economy in general and specifically for the businesses and workers who benefit from money generated by hunting and fishing. But particularly in hunting, resident sportsmen often feel like second-class citizens who lose more than they gain through an influx of nonresident hunters and changes in farming operations to a more commercial mindset that caters to those visitors from other states.

Dana Rogers, secretary and lobbyist for South Dakota Bowhunters Inc., said resident hunters often feel like their voice and their concerns get lost in the larger chorus of commercialism and attracting non-residents and their dollars. Rogers, who is also a founding member of the South Dakota Big Game Coalition, wondered what Noem would do to assure equal representation for “grassroots hunters and anglers, sportsmen who know how hard it is to work against this competition from nonresidents that our tourism is recruiting in here.”

Rogers said “resident hunters are frustrated.”


A plan for better habitat and better public access, too

Noem said she understands the frustration. She said even though she comes from a farm family with access to private land, others in her extended family across the state aren't landowners and face some of the challenges the general public faces on access.  Noem thinks her plan has the potential to increase license sales and the revenue they bring in, generate addition funding -- public and private -- for various habitat programs and promote more public access to private ground through related financial arrangements between GF&P and landowners.

“We’ll be cost sharing with them and that gives them some incentive to open their land to the public,” Noem said. “So I’m very familiar with the challenge. I know it’s gotten harder and harder to find somewhere outside to go and enjoy.”

Noem said she was surprised that she had to struggle to get a $1 million general-fund appropriation approved by the 2019 state Legislature. The $1 million will provide the basis for a broader program of habitat funding raised through private donations, sponsors and related fundraising.

But it got beat around on its way through the Legislature and survived only after the bill carrying the appropriation was amended so that none of the money could go to commercial hunting operations. Noem once ran a commercial-hunting operation on her northeast South Dakota family farm, and there was suspicion — which she says was unfounded — that she was working on behalf of that industry.

Noem said the public still needs to be better informed on why the habitat money is important to everyone, and noted that education gap includes some legislators.

“Frankly I’ve got a lot of West River legislators who didn’t help us set up a program to put more habitat out there,” she said. “And they need to be educated as to why it’s important.”

Some critics of the $1 million part of her habitat package didn’t like the idea of spending general fund money on habitat. Others didn’t like the way Noem and her office pushed the plan. And some questioned how it would benefit most of western South Dakota, where pheasants are scarce.

Although the plan initially seemed focused on pheasants, Noem has increasingly pushed the message that it’s a more diversified program to wildlife, including big game, statewide. She also noted that GF&P isn’t the only agency feeling pressure to change, mentioning a comment she had to GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler.

“I mean I said this to Kelly the other day: I said ‘I know you feel like I’m all up in your business all the time, you know. But just so you know ever agency and department feels that way,'” Noem said. “I’m not happy with South Dakota just treading water and getting by.”


Mayes ties decline in resident hunters to pay hunting

Rapid City sportsman Terry Mayes, vice president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, spoke to Noem about the declining number of hunters in South Dakota. Mayes said he was a hunting-safety instructor for 30 years and watched the number of kids heading into hunting decline consistently over the years.

“There were a lot of reasons for it. It’s a big, moving target,” Mayes said. “But a big part of it is pay hunting. If we have a habitat program that benefits mostly pay hunting, it will not solve what you’re after. We’ve got to provide South Dakota people with South Dakota hunting access. That’s vital. We just don’t have it.”

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Mayes said public-hunting ground and walk-in areas on private land leased for public hunting are helpful, but they are hunted hard and often not very productive for the average hunter after the first weekend or so of the season.

“It’s not that kids don’t want to hunt. They don’t have the opportunity, especially with pheasants,” Mayes said. “So what I’m saying is whatever this habitat program is, it’s got to incentivize everybody who benefits from the program to bring South Dakota hunters onto their property.”

Noem’s response was enthusiastic: “Yup. No, I agree wholeheartedly. And that was one of the things about that rumor spreading during the legislative sessions that all these acres were going to be focused on hunting preserves, which is not at all what is going to happen. Not at all. It is going to be focused on marginal acres with incentives to open up so the public has access.”

Noem said the program is still being designed, because it had to be delayed until she and GF&P officials knew what money the Legislature would authorize.

“But that is a priority for me, that we’re creating more and more opportunities to let people have access,” she said.

Jeff Olson thanked Noem for focusing on habitat, including her leadership in getting the $1 million appropriation for the habitat program. But he said real change in the habitat base across South Dakota will cost real money, such as the $200 million that comes to South Dakota farmers annually through the federal Conservation Reserve Program and has a profound, defining effect on the habitat base and pheasants and wildlife.

“So a million dollars is great, but we need $100 million to double our CRP,” Olson said. “We need big funding.”


Not wanting to say the t ... t ... t word

Olson said he likes Noem’s ideas for raising habitat money, which include a window decal for a donation to the habitat funds and specialty license plates for conservation. The license plate bill died in the state Legislature this year but Noem says she will bring it back in 2020.

Olson said those are good but more ambitious programs for habitat probably involve the “t” word.

“Unfortunately, a lot of them are from taxes,” he said.

The poster child for successful conservation taxes is in Missouri, where voters in 1976 put a 1/8-cent sales tax in the state constitution for wildlife and conservation work. Last I checked, that tax was generating about $100 million a year.

But that’s was 1976, in Missouri. This is 2019, in South Dakota. So don’t expect Noem to be pushing any general taxes for wildlife, or for a plan to get anywhere in the state Legislature if she did.

“You all know that I said I was not going to raise taxes,” she said.

But Noem said she was “shocked” at the legislative resistance to some of her habitat-related plans that didn't involve a tax.

“I thought people in South Dakota got that it was important, and that even if you don’t care about hunting and fishing you should care about our economy, the fact that people out here value conservation, that we should value diversity on our landscape, that we should value kids getting away from video games once in a while and going outdoors,” she said.

On that, Noem sought help from the “boys.”

“I would ask you to spend some time educating your legislators on this. They killed a lot of these habitat-funding sources,” she said. “That really makes me want to go gangbusters with a lot more funding things before the Legislature.”


Hatching a plan for better walleye fishing on Lake Oahe

Funding for better fishing came up in a question by Rapid City area angler Ken Edel, who told Noem South Dakota needs another state fish hatchery, preferably along the Missouri River near Pierre. South Dakota has a hatchery on Blue Dog Lake in northeastern South Dakota. Walleyes are the focus there, although the hatchery also produces northern pike, bass, perch and other species.

The state also gets some fish from the Lewis and Clark National Fish Hatchery near Yankton.

Cleghorn Springs Fish Hatchery in Rapid City and McNenny Fish Hatchery near Spearfish produce trout for Black Hills lakes and some streams, as well as stocking in some prairie waters and the Missouri River. 

Edel said more walleye production and stocking is needed to help keep massive Lake Oahe in top shape. He also said the emergency spillway near Lake Oahe needs work so that it can operate in dumping water when the reservoir is too full. Currently when lake levels need to be lowered beyond what can be run through the dam’s powerhouse outlets into the nearby stilling basin are used. But that water comes off the bottom of the lake and often carries clouds of smelt and herring essential to walleyes and other predator fish in Oahe, Edel said.

“Nobody thought we’d be draining smelt and herring and ruin the fishery,” Edel said.

If the emergency spillway could be used instead, water would come from the upper layer of the lake and not flush important baitfish, he said.

Both projects would be expensive, for the state in building a fish hatchery and likely for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in dealing with the spillway. 

Edel also said more work should be done to encourage and develop high-school fishing clubs across the state, an idea that is “growing leaps and bounds” in the rest of the nation.

Like others at the meeting, former South Dakota Wildlife Federation President Rich Widman of Brookings thanked Noem for her interest in wildlife issues and for meeting with the sportsmen. He also encouraged her to stay in touch with the group.

“If you have any ideas or questions, we’d love to be part of any discussion,” Widman said.


Handshakes instead of parting shots

In closing, Noem said she’s ready for an ongoing dialogue with sportsmen across the state, but she also warned that doesn’t mean they’ll always agree with what she decides.

“I hope if you know anything from this meeting it is that I am willing to listen and that I hear your concerns about for what’s happened so far. And my commitment is that we’ll have much more back and forth,” she said. “But I also want you to know that there may be times when I’m going to advocate for something that you disagree with. That may happen.”

If it does, it shouldn’t mean they are enemies, Noem said.

“My personality is I don’t mind arguing, but when we walk out the door we’re still going to be friends,” she said. “We may disagree about something that comes up but that doesn’t mean we don’t all care about the outdoors or have the same goals.”

When it was over, Black Hills Sportsmen President Cody Hodson said he thought the meeting was “positive” for both sides.

“It had the potential to get heated, but I don’t think it did,” Hodson said. “We were pretty pleased with the outcome, I would think she was, too.”

Now said before leaving that she was encouraged by the meeting, which she requested, and hopeful for a good relationship with the sportsmen.

After the meeting I missed talking with Jeff Olson, an old hand at outdoor meetings and outdoor controversies. So I had to catch him a few days later by cell phone -- from somewhere in South Africa, where he was hunting big kudu and little suni (aren't cell phones amazing? During a spotty phone call, however, Olson said he was impressed by Noem’s apparent passion for wildlife and the outdoors.

He still doesn't buy the predator program and hopes habitat and access will be the governor's priorities. But he likes Noem's enthusiasm, as well as the fact that she was willing to come hash things out in person.

“She really does seem to care. She wants to make a difference,” he said. “I just don’t know if she’s getting proper education and advice on the subject.”

But the boys are eager to help her with that.