For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to get comfortable with the trap thing.
You know, the governor’s trap thing.
Actually, it’s a trap-and-bounty thing. But let’s hold off for a second or two on the bounties.
The trap thing is a pretty big deal all in itself.
It’s about $900,000 big this year alone in terms of the cost to the state Game, Fish & Parks Department and the assortment of Wildlife Division funds that come primarily from sportsmen and sportswomen.
As part of Gov. Kristi Noem’s Second Century Initiative on pheasants, GF&P is giving away something like 16,000 live traps to get more people involved in trapping and focus more trapping pressure on the pheasant-nesting season in South Dakota. The targeted critters are red fox, skunks, raccoons, badgers and possum.
The trap giveaway commences, I believe, on April 1. No fooling.
And right now, busy inmate hands at Pheasantland Industries at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls are putting together some of the 12-by-12-by-36-inch traps. Even more, however are being produced at Tru-Catch Traps in Belle Fourche. Those are just slightly larger, at 12-by-14-by-36.
The live traps were in high demand from the moment GF&P opened the give-away program and began taking requests for traps.
“We launched at 8 or 8:30 and by noon we had 700,” says Keith Fisk, administrator of GF&P’s wildlife-damage-management program. “By 3 p.m. we were at 2,000. And I said ‘We’ve got to do something here,' and we knocked down the per-house trap limit from five to three. We still hit the cap of 5,500 people that night at 8.”
So, lots of interest out there. In part, that’s because, well, free stuff is free. Who doesn’t want some of that? You take it even if you might not know if you really want it. If not, you can always sell it, or give it away.
But also, Fisk argues, there’s real public excitement about being involved in a program aimed at helping the state bird — yeah, that popular non-native one, phasianus colchicus — and also getting involved in trapping.
“The number of people who trap in South Dakota is going down, and Gov. Noem wants to get people excited about it again,” Fisk said. “This is a way to showcase trapping as an important wildlife-management tool. And it will get people outside to enjoy the outdoors.”
I like that getting-people-outside part. I also like the idea of using trapping as an entry point for kids and other people with an outdoor interest but no real experience. The struggle for me comes with the focus on trapping as a fairly high-profile part of the governor’s pheasant initiative, which — to be fair to the initiative — does seem to focus to a greater degree on habitat.
And that’s good, because habitat is what really matters in work to boost pheasant numbers and improve pheasant hunting on any large scale. And by large scale, I’m talking roughly the eastern two thirds of South Dakota — add or subtract a county or part of a county here and there — that we tend to consider pheasant country.
It took us a while to figure out the habitat thing here in South Dakota. First, we played around with trapping and bounties, longer seasons, shorter seasons, bigger limits, smaller limits, even for a time certain pheasant-hunting zones. That’s decades-ago stuff, as compared to the now-we-know-better stuff that has led to an almost-exclusive focus on habitat.
Eventually we recognized that if there’s habitat, the season lengths and bag limits and other attempts to manipulate harvest didn’t matter much. If there’s a place for birds to nest, to raise chicks, to feed and to winter, there’ll be more chicks, and more pheasants
Without that healthy habitat base, nothing else matters much at all. Including trapping. Including bounties.
You don’t have to be a statistician to understand the story of the pheasant population, and its ebbs and flows, in South Dakota since the 1940s. When there was extra habitat around, there were more pheasants. When there wasn’t, there weren’t.
During and immediately after World War II when there was plenty of grass and fallow fields and weeds, we had crazy numbers of birds. There was another spike during the Soil Bank years of the 1960s, a spike that I was old enough to remember, benefit from and credit to the large expanses of Soil Bank acres that were aswarm with birds.
Then we saw another big rise with the large-scale enrollments in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Of course, there are ups and downs even with good habitat. Harsh winters, spring storms, flooding during nesting seasons, scorching weather or hail during chick rearing, all kill pheasants, even with good habitat.
But the better the habitat, the better the survival, the quicker the recovery of ringneck populations. No matter what you do about predators, that’s not going to change.
So what about trapping? Well, sure, it can help. And if used smartly and intensively, it can help a lot with a localized bird population, like you’d find at, for example, a commercial-hunting operation.
Trapping is part of the business model in commercial pheasant-hunting operations. I assume that includes the one on the Noem family ground in northeast South Dakota. Noem herself has talked about the value of her experience in that business. And in that business, trapping tends to be held in high regard, predators in very low regard. Her plans to increase predator control during the nesting season reflect that.
And trapping matters, especially when a lot of pen-raised birds are being released on a preserve. How much does it matter on a landscape-scale basis? I’ve long been skeptical. So have people who know more about it than I do.
Take John Cooper, for one. John Wrede, for another.
Cooper served in the cabinets of Govs. Mike Rounds and Bill Janklow as secretary of the Game, Fish & Parks Department. Before that, he was a law-enforcement agent for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for more than two decades. In retirement, Cooper served as a wildlife consultant and chairman of the appointed Game, Fish & Parks Commission.
So he has a sense for the state, its wildlife, professional wildlife management principles and the realities of working in the public sector. And he fears that “people got over their skis” on the trapping-and-bounty ideas.
“I kind of reminds me of what they say — ‘ready, shoot, aim,’” Cooper said. “This doesn’t meet the test of scientifically valid management. I don’t think it’s a valid expenditure of sportsmen’s dollars.”
Cooper was part of the Pheasant Habitat Summit called by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard in December of 2013. Cooper also was involved with the Pheasant Working Group that followed, and studied options — including trapping and predator control — to help boost the pheasant population.
“Believe me, we looked hard at the predator angle. It was talked about at length,” Cooper said. “We asked for specific studies, talked to people from SDSU, people from the (GF&P) Department and it was pretty conclusive that predator-control was not the solution. Our solution was to spread that habitat out.”
Cooper said research has shown that intensively managed predator-control work on limited areas can have an impact. But it’s costly and requires close attention and consistent care, he said.
“You can do it in small areas, you cannot do it over large landscapes,” he said. “It won’t happen. So we decided that wasn’t the best place to spend your money. Sportsmen know it’s a habitat issue.”
A much-bigger issue for pheasants than predators is federal Conservation Reserve Program acres being converted back to row crops, Cooper said.
“That’s the real concern among sportsmen, the loss of CRP acres and the gain of soybeans,” he said.
Cooper and others are also troubled by the quick process of contracting for the live traps and committing more than $900,000, just on the trap give-way, without enough public discussion and transparency. And it did happen pretty fast, for a big project and significant expenditure of dollars raised from sportsmen and sportswomen.
Noem has stated her commitment to transparency in state government. This isn’t a shining example of that. Most like an example of haste and corner cutting.
And Cooper wonders: How long will this last? Will they give away more traps next year, or the year after? How many of those traps will really be used after the novelty wears off? How many will be used in areas where it will benefit pheasants?
“I just think at this point there are a lot more questions than there are answers,” he said.
Then there’s Wrede, who worked as a state conservation officer and regional wildlife manager for GF&P before finishing his career as a federal wildlife professional. Wrede can be a bit cantankerous, a quality for quick he doesn't aplogize. But he is also well traveled and widely experienced in wildlife management. And he absorbs and retains data like few professionals I have covered. Wrede says the data on predator-control efforts doesn’t justify this plan.
“I don’t like my money wasted on this stuff any better than I like it being wasted on Walk-In Areas that look like biological deserts or pheasant restocking efforts that don’t work, either,” Wrede wrote in a Facebook message to me. “I’m sickened by the alternative facts of current bio-politics. There is no political solution for an ecological problem.”
And Wrede further noted:
“The issue is how to raise as many birds to survival age in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. Wildlife science has long since proven that abundant, high-quality, diverse, well-connected and distributed habitat of all varieties, from nesting, brood rearing, loafing, roosting, winter cover” is the way to consistently produce pheasants.
Fisk doesn’t dispute the importance of habitat. And he agrees that it’s the most important factor. But he is more of a believer in predator control, as you might expect. It’s his professional work, or at least a big part of it.
And more than that, he has some personal research to augment his belief in trapping as a part of pheasant management. He conducted field research on predation on nests for two seasons in eastern South Dakota while working on his master’s degree. He monitored 2,000 duck and pheasant nests and documented heavy predation on the nests.
He said 80 percent nest destruction wasn’t unusual.
“If you have 20-percent nest success in and area, that’s really high,” he said. “It’s astonishing how many nests are depredated by predators every year.”
It’s wise to remember that a destroyed nest often isn’t the end of nesting for the hen that built it. Presuming the hen was away from the nest or got away when the predator arrived, she will likely attempt nesting again, and maybe a third time.
Even so, an 80 percent hit on an initial round of nests is a big one. Wrede contends that the research needed more scientific review to reach any useful conclusion. Fisk says he’s comfortable with the data.
It’s interesting that even in Fisk’s survey work, the value of habitat was clear in nest survival. Nests in areas of extensive pastures and grasses had better chances of survival than those in the patchwork of habitat left in heavily farmed areas. So more habitat would help nesting and nest survival, wherever it is.
Fisk argues that in heavily farmed areas, predator control might be especially important. Since predators tend to be effective in finding nests in more limited patches of cover, fewer predators should mean more surviving nests.
Which doesn’t mean that even he thinks trapping and predator control matches habitat as a pheasant factor.
When asked if habitat was more important, Fisk said: “Yes. Certainly, there’s no question that habitat is a critical component of pheasant and duck populations in South Dakota. But predator control can be a successful piece if combined with the right landscapes and the right dynamics.”
I’m still skeptical when it comes to landscape-degree benefits for pheasants from trapping. And I have to wonder about return on investment, when we already have investments for give-away traps of nearly $1 million. And that says nothing of staff time and administrative cost for that and for the other part of the nesting-season initiative, the the bounty program.
Bounties on predators is another trip down the memory lane of wildlife management. Along with the trap giveaway, Noem’s initiative will pay $10 for each tail from a raccoon, striped skunk, badger, possum or red fox.
I should say GF&P officials will pay that. They’ll also accept the tails, process signed affidavits from the presenters saying the tails were taken after April 1 and that the presenters killed the animals themselves.
GF&P will even get in a little IRS-related duty, notifying individual bounty recipients when the amount he or she has received has reached $600 and a 1099 Form is required. I have to believe GF&P officials are not thrilled to get into all this new paperwork.
The five targeted animals may be killed (or, as GF&P likes to say, “harvested”) throughout the year but GF&P officials and Noem hope the focus will be on the nesting season.
And, of course, they hope the trapping will take place in pheasant country. Some of it won’t, though, obviously.
A Facebook friend of mine said he has been busy removing skunks and raccoons from his property with traps. And he sent off for some of the free live traps. He lives on the west side of Rapid City.
Fisk understands that some traps will go outside of the targeted pheasant zone. After that, it’s hard to say what good they will or won’t do. Most, he argues, will go to pheasant country.
“By and large, the bulk of the people are in eastern South Dakota — Sioux Falls, no surprise there, Aberdeen, Watertown, Brookings, Pierre,” Fisk said. “Rapid City is pretty high on the list, too. But it’s hard for us to say that just because somebody lives in Rapid City or the Black HIlls, they’re not going to be using those traps for their intended purposes. Maybe they have land down around Martin, etc.”
Certainly, that’s possible. But it won’t be monitored. So it’ll be virtually impossible to know how many traps are used in the way and in the areas they’re supposed to be. Wrede also notes that even in localized predator-removal projects that have worked, the trapping was by professionals who closely monitored and carefully documented what they did and its impacts over a period of years.
Further, Wrede questions the effectiveness and monitoring capabilities of the bounty program. He wonders how many tail bounties will be paid on animals from the target zone, as opposed to elsewhere. How many will come from trapped animals versus animals that were shot or simply hit on roads and highways?
How many tails will come from bordering states?
“The potential for fraud and inefficiency is enormous,” Wrede says.
Fisk says he’s not expecting perfection in the program, but he does think it could make a difference, both in predator numbers and public involvement in this program specifically and the outdoors in general.
Killing a few more predators at the right time of year and recruiting more outdoor lovers seems like a good combination, he said. Live traps were chosen because they are easier for beginners to use, and there’s less chance of a newbie getting a finger caught in a trap.
But the animals caught in the live traps won’t be alive for long. This is not catch-and-release. The idea is to kill predators, not study them.
“The program is really about engaging South Dakotans into the outdoors and having them learn more about trapping, habitat, predators and how they all work together,” Fisk said. “With fewer predators, we could have more nests and better survival.”
That could be true, especially in certain localized areas. But at what cost, both in dollars and in a sort of philosophical back-stepping in wildlife-management philosophy?
I want to think the nesting-season predator program will be worth it. But I’m not there yet.