Noem knows habitat's the key but still loves nest-predator trapping program for getting kids outdoors
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L to R: Larry Rhoden, live trap, Kristi Noem, Vizsla

Gov. Kristi Noem’s predator control plan is a done deal. Period. That train has left the station.

If there was ever any doubt about that, Game, Fish & Parks Department Secretary Kelly Hepler went out of his way to make it clear last week during a meeting of the GF&P Commission at the Outdoor Campus West here in Rapid City. And Hepler did it in a way that surprised me a bit.

Hepler, who serves in Noem’s cabinet, took time before a much-anticipated public-comment period to praise the governor for her predator plan and for her commitment to getting more kids outdoors through trapping. Then Hepler commented on the public comments to come before they were even made. 

In essence, the secretary said that ideas on ways to improve the predator plan were welcome but general opposition would be a waste of breath. Because, he said, the plan was a done deal.

I’m no public-relations pro, but it seemed unwise for Hepler to be so dismissive of well-intended South Dakotans who came forward — in some cases after traveling considerable distances — to present heartfelt and in most cases pretty-well-informed opinions contrary to the Noem predator plan.

And, yes, many of those comments simply blasted the plan and the way it was formulated without enough public transparency. They were worth listening to, whether the train had left the station or not.


Public comment lost in haste to implement plan


Just as dismissing certain types of criticism in advance was a mistake on Hepler’s part, so was it unwise for Noem and Hepler and key GF&P leaders to push through the plan before it could be properly vetted by the public — especially the sporting public that is paying for it. To give away more than $900,000 worth of live traps and start paying $10 a tail, up to $500,000 for selected pheasant-nest predators without proper public examination and comment seemed arrogant.

Or maybe it was just cluelessness in the haste to get the program going by this spring.

Speaking for the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, Rapid City sportsman Terry Mayes said the plan and its expenditures deserved extensive public examination and debate, before being implemented. And the commission should have been much more involved than it was, earlier in the process, Mayes said.

“The lack of transparency in this process stifled the sportsmen’s voice and circumvented the game commission,” Mayes said. “The game commission represents all the people of South Dakota, and they never had a meaningful role in this. Of course, we as sportsmen can speak for ourselves, but we never got the chance.”

Former GF&P Secretary John Cooper read parts of a letter on behalf of a consortium of sportsmen's clubs from across the state, and also argued that sportsmen and the general public were denied input. Cooper, who served as chairman of the GF&P Commission after his years as secretary, said issues of this cost and importance had previously gone through the regular review-and-comment period before the commission, and this one should have, too.

That chance to see, to examine and to comment? It’s a big deal.  Really big. So much so that Noem made state-government transparency one of her key campaign promises last year. And she repeated that promise during her first State of the State address in January, pledging to have “the most transparent administration South Dakota has ever seen.”

The handling of this particular plan was not a shining example of that.

I love Noem’s transparency promise, and tend to believe she means it. That’s why the handling of this predator program was as unsettling as it was puzzling. And it must have been a little confusing to the GF&P Commission, too, since for a while they seemed to have been playing catch-up on the details along with the public.

The commission is composed of state citizens appointed and reappointed, or not, by the governor. The make-up of the panel is structured to offer a balance of political party affiliations, geographic locations and urban-rural residency. Its duties and authorities are crucial to GF&P, the management of wildlife in South Dakota and outdoor recreation.

On many issues, the commission directs the professional staff of GF&P, including Hepler. And if there’s a major decision on policy or a big or different expenditure of agency money raised through hunting and fishing license sales and federal taxes on related gear, it typically goes before the commission, and before the people who pay the fees and taxes.

As Mayes pointed out, the the commission wasn’t nearly as involved on the predator plan it could have been and should have been.


Maybe it was legal but was it right?


But the GF&P secretary has substantial autonomy within the commission oversight. And Hepler argued that he and other GF&P staffers had the authority to develop the predator plan and fund it from wildlife funds without commission authorization and public notice and comment in advance.

I assume that’s true. Hepler has been around. He knows the laws and the rules that govern the agency. But legal doesn’t necessarily make it right, or wise.

Hepler said parts of the plan, such as the efficacy of encouraging more trapping of predators during the pheasant nesting season, were open to debate. Boy, is that true. But beyond that Hepler argued that the plan serves GF&P well while promoting Noem’s commitment to getting more kids involved in trapping specifically and the outdoors in general.

“It’s good for us, because what the governor is trying to do is very consistent with our mission,” he said.

It’s true that getting more kids outdoors and away from computer screens is essential to the GF&P mission. And it’s an outdoor priority for Noem. I got that message directly from her when she called me at home last week on the morning of the commission meeting, the morning after I published a blog column critical of the plan.

She wanted to defend the plan directly and also to clear up a couple of things she said I got wrong in previous columns.

For one, she said, I wrote that she had once run a commercial pheasant-hunting operation, which is right. She did. I also wrote that the operation is still in the Noem family, which is wrong. It isn't.

Second, I suggested that she postponed a meeting to discuss the predator plan with the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club here in Rapid City, an affiliate of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, because opposition had surfaced against her plan.

Noem said the main reason she postponed the meeting was a flurry of flood-related duties, not public opposition to her predator-control plan.

“I was dealing with flooding and FEMA programs and other duties. Since (legislative) session has gotten out it’s been a bit of a busy time,” she said.

Noem also said I had failed in my writing to recognize that her trapping plan wasn’t just about predators but was aimed at getting kids outdoors.

“It’s the second one you’ve done where you’ve missed kind of a big priority of the predator-control program,” she said.

In a previous blog, I argued at length that habitat, not predator control, was the key to increased pheasant numbers, and should be the management and funding focus. But I also said getting kids outside would be a good thing and that Noem had that as a key objective. 


It's hard to argue with getting kids outdoors


Noem said she learned to hunt from her grandma. That’s Grandma Bergan, by the way. I heard about her from Noem back when I was with Keloland News, and wrote a blog story about their hunts together. Check it out here, and also learn more about the hunting passions of Mike Rounds and John Thune.

Noem says those days afield with her grandma were “special times” that set her up for a lifetime connection with the outdoors and outdoor sports. But many kids today are missing that, she said.

“We’ve got fewer kids hunting than ever before,” she said, noting that trapping numbers, too, have fallen, something she hopes the predator plan will address.

“It’s more than going out after predators. It’s getting people outside," she said. "If we go after and remove a coon or a skunk, I think that’s a good thing. But getting kids outside and inspiring an interest where they hadn’t been interested before, I think that’s the key. I want to get kids off the X-Box and out of the house."

She thinks it’s working already. So does Hepler. He noted last week how quickly thousands of free live-traps were requested, and said GF&P officials are hearing “really neat stories about people getting kids outside.” They included a story about a middle-schooler with some behavior challenges who took to trapping right away after his family received free traps and tried them out.

“It changed his life,” Hepler said. “He wants to go outside and trap now.”

Noem and Hepler were supported in comments from trappers and representatives of trapping organizations. And despite my personal feelings about the predator plan, I saw some good points in their arguments.


It might be good for landowner-sportsmen relations


Belvidere rancher and trapper Mark DeVries argued that the plan is "not perfect, but it’s a great starting point."

DeVries said the new trappers will soon find out that they “will get outsmarted more than they will succeed.” But getting “new people outside” will be good for the people and the outdoors, and could be good for landowner sportsmen relations, he said.

Getting people out of town to make landowner contacts for trapping access outside of the hunting season — a busy and sometimes stressful time for landowners — will foster better relations, DeVries and others said.  The trapping might not have a great impact on pheasant populations overall, but it will matter to the new trappers, he said.

“They may only get three raccoons but they’re going to feel like they’re helping the pheasants,” he said.

John Hopple of Black Hawk, president of the South Dakota Trappers Association, said not all members of the association agree with everything in the predator plan, but “all agree it will be good for kids.”

A trapping class last week by GF&P at Outdoor Campus West was full, mostly with enthusiastic first-time trappers, Hopple said.

“Most kids who have never trapped before, even if they never trap again, if they go out and experience the outdoors it’s a win,” he said. “They might not end up being a trapper but maybe they’ll be a deer hunter or a fly fisher.”

Fair points, all. The question is: Is this program the best way to get kids involved in the outdoors. Because GF&P is doing it every day with programs — at the OCW in Rapid City and the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, and elsewhere at parks across the state — that get kids engaged in outdoor recreation and don’t countermand established scientific wildlife management principles in the process.

And what might be the negatives of promoting trapping — a controversial activity— when the key to pheasants is habitat? We’ll see, but I hope it doesn’t mean we end up backsliding in our public understanding of the scientific principles behind habitat as the basis for pheasasnt management. Because that could be costly. It has been in the past.


But what about the science and the native species?


Other critics of the plan during the open session pointed out that wildlife species -- fox, badgers, possums, skunks, raccoons -- were being targeted for the benefit of a non-native species, the ring-necked pheasant, which they say puts tourism and economic development ahead of wildlife management. They also noted that the targeted predators, which are part of a balanced ecosystem, will be trapped and killed everywhere in South Dakota, not just in pheasant country.

And they'll be trapped during a time of the year when they have and are rearing young, so the losses will be greater.

Jamie Al-Haj of Rapid City said focusing on predators overlooks the scientifically established habitat imperatives in pheasant production and also misses negative impacts from contemporary farming practices, herbicide use, wetland drainage, ditch mowing and climate variations.

Noem said during our phone chat that she doesn’t expect trapping to match habitat development in producing pheasants. And she has plenty of habitat focus in her overall Second Century Initiative for pheasants, along with the nesting-predator plan.

“I whole-heartedly recognize that habitat is the key,” she said. “There’s never been a time when I said the predator control program is more important than habitat. Habitat has always been the key.”

That’s part of the reason she pushed a $1-million appropriation through the 2019 state Legislature as a basis for a new habitat initiative aimed at attracting other dollars for habitat work. She has other promotional ideas on the habitat side, too, which is good — and scientifically grounded.

But habitat work is costly, really costly, if it’s going to make a landscape-scale difference. That’s just what the federal Conservation Reserve Program does: It costs a lot of money and makes a landscape-scale difference.

It’s of a size and magnitude and expense that South Dakota can’t match and never will match, but surely benefits from. The state has long had habitat-enhancement programs that work with CRP and its participants, to add habitat benefits. Noem wants to continue and improve those efforts.

During her eight years in the U.S. House, Noem joined other members in our congressional delegation in pushing for more Conservation Reserve Program acres. The value of CRP to farmers, the land, wildlife and sportsmen often ran into federal budget constraints and politics, since the states that benefit most from CRP typically don’t have the most political clout.

So we saw sharp drops in program acres, followed by sharp drops in habitat and pheasant numbers.

“I’m frustrated by the fact that our habitat relies on federal programs,” Noem said. “That’s why I’m pushing so hard for habitat work we can do.”

The $1-million is just a start for habitat, she said.

“We’re going to go raise money and get other money into it,” she said. “But to me, it was very important to have that seed money.”

Which doesn’t mean she’s backing off on nesting-season trapping, which she thinks is important to pheasants but even more important to kids and their future.

“It’s more than going after predators. It’s getting people outside,” she said. “If we go after a coon or a skunk, I think that’s a good thing. But getting a kid outside, inspiring an interest that maybe wasn’t there before, I think that’s the key.”

When I asked if there would be another trap giveaway next year, Noem said: “We don’t have a plan to do that. This was to try something new, which I don’t think hurts. We’re pretty traditional in South Dakota, but we shouldn’t be scared to try something new and get people outside.”

I’m all for getting people outside. And I’m happy to hear her say there are no plans for another trap give-away.

One should be more than enough.