The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks is hellbent on changing how deer licenses are drawn. In doing so they seem unwilling to listen to the hunters they are asking for feedback from.

For the purposes of transparency and those who won't read a long article, I am completely opposed to the changes for two reasons:

1. The proposed system will not make a significant enough impact on increasing hunters ability to draw their preferred tag.

2. It is being done to make more nonresident tags available in the leftover draw to increase revenue.

The South Dakota GFP Commission proposed the new system for drawing firearm deer licenses at its July 11 meeting. The new system was Alternative #2, the system recommended by the Department. Alternative #2 would force applicants to choose one license out of all of the six firearm deer seasons for the first two draws, those being East River, West River, Black Hills, National Wildlife Refuge, Custer State Park, and Muzzleloader. Applicants could only have one tag in the first two draws and no more than two tags after the third.

Currently each of the seasons is treated separately from each other and you could possibly, though highly unlikely, draw six tags in the first draw. Many draw three in the first draw. A resident hunter is capped at five licenses in the first three draws of East River and West River seasons. Nonresidents may apply for remaining East River licenses in the third draw. Typically by then most of those are picked over and only antlerless tags remain.

The new proposed system would remove people who apply for more than one tag from all but one of the draws and, in theory, give them a better chance. With a maximum possibility of two tags in the first three draws, that will leave a lot more licenses left for nonresidents when they are eligible in the fourth drawing.

When you look a draw statistics, the problem with this is that in many East River units like Codington County they only had 250 licenses in 2017, half of which are reserved for landowners. All of the landowner tags were gone when the draw came. That left 125 tags for 733 applicants in the first choice drawing. Under the new system, a few of those applicants may apply elsewhere, but not enough to make it less than once every three years you can draw a tag there.

In Turner County it's even worse. In 2017 there 100 tags for 694 applicants. Knowing many East River hunters who apply for these types of units, I doubt many of them are applying anywhere else.

It's all being done, allegedly, to "increase the number of hunters who draw their preferred deer license." It will probably do that to a small extent. But for high demand-low supply seasons and units, odds won't increase significantly enough to penalize those who would apply in the first draw in seasons and units with greater odds like Sully County in East River, or Meade County in the West River season.


GFP conducted nine focus groups around the state and did online polling to get feedback on the proposals. From the news release:

Results from the focus group meetings suggested that approximately 46 percent of the participants preferred change. Of the online respondents, 43 percent preferred change. When looking at the number of resident hunters who typically apply for one deer season, which in 2017 represented 67 percent of firearm deer applicants, 72 percent of the focus group participants preferred change and 50 percent of the online respondents preferred change. For example, in 2017, there were 52,633 resident hunters who applied for a limited draw deer license for one or more of the six deer hunting seasons. Of the 52,633 resident hunters, 35,140 applied for only one of the six seasons.

This may sound like a convincing argument since two-thirds of deer hunters only apply for one season. The spin being presented here is that if 72% of the one season hunters in the focus group think it's a good idea , then the 35,140 hunters who only applied for one season will all think it's a good idea.

Those single season hunters in the focus groups only made up 17% of the focus groups. So 28 out of 225 people in the focus groups (13%) is used to help sell this to the commission.

I'm not overlooking the fact that 54% of the focus groups and 57% of online respondents opposed any change at all. Only 26% of the online respondents are one-season hunters.

Is this a fair representation of all deer hunters in South Dakota? Not really. It's not even a truly scientific poll. But it is the response of those who were either passionate enough to seek out the opportunity to be heard, or were able to find the link to take the online survey, which was confusing to find when it was published by GFP. Honestly, and sadly, there is also a lot of apathy among many of those who hunt deer.

As with anything in government agencies, money is an overriding factor. But how could a proposal that is supposed to give the majority of hunting applicants greater opportunity be about money?

The GFP budget for fiscal year 2018 at $56.2 million. Estimated revenue is $54.1 million. I was surprised to learn that, but also that GFP takes in a wide majority of its license revenue from nonresidents, $18.5 million, compared to the $11.5 from taxpaying residents.

Because of the way this alternative system is structured, it is going to mean a lot more buck tags left for nonresidents in the fourth draw. Buck tags cost seven times more for nonresidents ($286 for one, $336 for double tag licenses). I'm not suggesting that there are going to be another 7,000+ tags remaining to make up the budget deficit, but 1,000 more nonresident tags would be $286,000 and be a start to generating more revenue. Nonresidents won't have any more tags allocated in the first draw than they currently have, but they will undoubtedly have increased opportunity in the later draws.

It wouldn't be the first crazy scheme to generate more revenue. Last year Governor Dennis Daugaard and GFP tried to acquire part of Spearfish Canyon to turn it into a revenue generating state park by swapping relatively worthless prairie school land with the National Forest Service. Fortunately so many people thought it was a horrible idea, including state legislators, that it went away.

The Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the Commission are by state law given the mission to come up with the system to issue licenses and administer it. This license system for deer is one of few ways they have to increase revenue for itself without raising licensing fees or going to the legislature.

I realize that is a theory based on circumstantial evidence, but when I was a member of the focus group in Yankton, it was stated over and over that in the GFP's interaction with the public, the topic kept coming up about people wanting to draw their preferred tag more often. It was always phrased that way when written or spoken and still is, "Those who want to draw their preferred license more often." I asked the presenter who were the people or what type of people were saying that this needed to change, like where are the from? East River? West River? The answer I got was "I don't know" and he quickly looked for another hand up to call on.

GFP has numbers, graphs, and slides for everything they want to say but they couldn't present anything more than an anecdote on why this huge change in the system was necessary.

What would get me to be okay with this alternative deer license drawing proposal? If nonresidents are locked out of leftovers until after the fourth drawing, allowing residents to have dibs, I'd be much more open to the idea. But as it sits, this proposal needs to die to protect residents ability to draw the tags they have been able to.

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