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Noem, GF&P banking on big bucks for wildlife habitat by auctioning off high-value bighorn sheep permit

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OK, let’s say you had a half million dollars or so to spare. Would you spend it all to shoot a single sheep?

I mean, not just any sheep. A bighorn sheep.

And not just any bighorn sheep. A monster of a trophy bighorn ram with huge, thick, curled horns that could set a new world record.

How about that one?  Right here in South Dakota? Worth a half million dollars?

Well, not to me. But it might be to someone. After all, some hunters have already spent from $70,000 to more than $100,000 for a shot at a trophy bighorn, with an expensive license the state Game, Fish & Parks Department has been offering at auction since 2013.

That first license issued by the agency through a bid auction that year went for $102,000 to Watertown-area businessman Jon Dagel. Since then the winning bid in the auction has averaged $83,000, with the money going to bighorn sheep management and research.

Now GF&P officials and Gov. Kristi Noem are banking on the probability that there are even more big bucks to be made on trophy bighorn rams. They got an indication of that potential last year, when a new world record ram was taken from the protected herd in Badlands National park.

But quick, let me clarify that. The ram was shot outside the park, which is closed to hunting, but inside a special new unit created to allow a limited number of hunters a shot at the big badlands rams, at certain times of the year.

Bighorns wander, after all. And they don’t acknowledge park boundaries when they do. Last October, during the first hunting season in the new bighorn unit near the badlands, Clayton Miller broke the world record for bighorn rams taken with archery gear.

And he didn’t pay $83,000 for it, either. He was lucky enough to be drawn for the one permit available for the badlands unit during its first year.

There were three other bighorn permits available last year through GF&P for a limited hunting unit on both sides of the South Dakota-Wyoming line around Elk Mountain west of Custer. One of those permits was the auction license.

This year, there will be two regular bighorn permits available for the Elk Mountain unit by drawing. And there will be one bighorn permit available for the badlands unit by drawing. And there will be that fourth permit, the expensive one, to be sold at auction. And it will be good for either Elk Mountain or the badlands units.

But after Miller's big ram, you can presume the person who buys the auction permit this year will focus the hunt on the badlands.

The idea of extending the option of the auctioned permit to include the new badlands unit came from the GF&P Department staff. But the GF&P Commission must decide the issue, most likely today or tomorrow (Feb. 28 or March 1) at its monthly meeting in Pierre.

The proposal includes a split of the proceeds from the auction between bighorn sheep management and the Second Century Initiative. The initiative is a wildlife-betterment program announced by Gov. Kristi Noem in her first state of the state message. It will focus on improved, expanded habitat for pheasants and other wildlife, with some money going into nesting-season predator control.

The name of the initiative comes from the first century of pheasant hunting in South Dakota, which held its first season in 1919.

State Wildlife Division Director Tony Leif said auctioning a high-value bighorn tag that is likely to increase in value because of the world record taken last fall could provide money to “jump start” the Second Century Initiative.

Other funding sources — public and private — are being developed. And a legislative committee today approved a $500,000 appropriations for the program.

It’s anybody’s guess how much a bighorn permit for the badlands-area unit would be worth at auction. But former GF&P Commission Chairman Jeff Olson of Rapid City, a well-traveled big-game hunter himself, said he wouldn’t be surprised, given the big publicity brought by the world record, if the bids for the permit hit $400,000 or $500,000.

“These big-money guys who want to shoot the biggest ram in the world, they’re willing to spend a lot of money for it,” Olson said. “And they could bring a lot of that money in our state.”

Olson said there is some concern that bighorn sheep management not be lost in the move to put more money into the Second Century Initiative. And he noted that it will take millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands, to make a difference in pheasant and other wildlife populations through habitat development.

Leif is sensitive to those concerns. So is the commission. And they’ll be hearing from interest groups at their meeting in Pierre.

When I talked to Leif Wednesday afternoon, the plan was that the first $83,000 brought in by the sale of the permit would remain in bighorn management, while the rest would go to the Second Century Initiative.

Olson wonders if bighorns shouldn’t get more than $83,000 in the split.

I was a little surprised that the proposal wouldn’t have to go through the regular process of giving public notice, waiting a period of time for comment, holding a public hearing and then voting. That usually takes at least a month, sometimes longer.

The process here seems to be speeding up because of the push for the wildlife initiative.  And in particular there’s the push to get things settled for the season next fall before the middle of this March, when the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Association has its fundraising banquet in Minneapolis.

That’s where the South Dakota bighorn permit is auctioned off each year. So it's took weeks away, and the clock is ticking.

When I asked him about what seems like a short-cut in the public-involvement process, Leif also said the commission has the authority to act on this particular type of license issue without going through that regular administrative rules process. He noted that GF&P sent out a news release with a mention of the coming action on Tuesday.

I didn’t see that news release until he sent it to me.  But I heard about it after sportsmen’s representatives began scurrying to discuss the plan and consider their reactions and options, some of which are likely to be aired at the commission meeting.

Leif said the commission seemed receptive to the plan, but he wouldn’t predict the vote.

“We’ve talked to all the commissioners and they’re open to it,” Leif said. I think they’re also interested in what others think.”

Including, of course, those “others” with big bank accounts and a trophy sized hankering to shoot a world record.