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White House celebrates 'Public Lands Day' as some hunters fear outdoor traditions threatened

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The White House recently celebrated National Public Lands Day, highlighting an initiative to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters over the next decade.

Additionally, the Biden administration announced 18 new members to its newly created federal Conservation Council. The group includes representatives from organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, National Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Pheasants Forever.

The council, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will provide recommendations to the federal government regarding policies that benefit wildlife and habitat conservation.

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Michael G. Brown
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A mature Whitetail buck in velvet pauses near the road in Custer State Park in August of 2019. Photo use courtesy of Michael G. Brown

The announcement is welcome news to some South Dakota hunters and anglers who worry about an erosion of the state's outdoor heritage.

Marv Stoterau has been farming, hunting and fishing since the 1940s. He said as the industrialization of agriculture has increased, wildlife numbers have decreased.

"Once it's gone, it's gone. We're never gonna have it again. And a lot of this is man-made destruction," he said. "I blame it on the greed of the younger generation of farmers to have more and more and more. They didn't grow up where they had habitat all over the place. And if you don't have the habitat, you don't have nothing."

Stoterau said accessing hunting spots has become more challenging as the 'urban-rural-divide' has grown. He recalls a time when he'd make friends with hunters who would randomly pull up to his farm.

"I was milking one morning and somebody came in the barn, and they said, 'can we hunt deer here?' Well, I said, 'yeah, if you wait a few minutes I'll go along, show you where to go.' And yeah, they were from Sioux Falls," Stroterau said.

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Michael G Brown
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A male Greater Prairie Chicken dances and displays on the Ft Pierre National Grasslands of South Dakota in the spring of 2016. Photo use courtesy of Michael G. Brown

But farmers largely say they're simply following USDA policies which favor expansive corn and soybean operations over things like water quality and habitat.

Some sportsmen and women say because agriculture and tourism have such powerful voices in politics, public access is too often sidelined when making public water, wildlife and habitat decisions.

Gov. Kristi Noem's administration has a number of programs that focus on strategic conservation efforts. The Second Century Initiative is converting more land into public habitat, while new revenue generators, including the Habitat Stamp which hunters purchase with their licenses, provide more funding to do so.

However, some hunters and anglers say it's not enough.

Jeff Clow, a lifelong South Dakota outdoorsman, said the state's hunting and fishing traditions have changed.

"The days of going out and getting three birds by one o'clock are gone," he said. "If you're out and you get a good shot and you get your rooster, you got a trophy that day and you should be happy because we're never going to see numbers as we did in the 1960s."

Clow said for the state to preserve its hunting heritage, it needs more quality, publicly accessible habitat — something he hopes the new federal efforts can make happen.

"The population has grown and the public areas are the same as they were when Dad took me out 50 years ago," Clow said.

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Michael G Brown
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A mature bighorn ram pauses on the grasslands against the backdrop of the Badlands of South Dakota during the 2021 rut. Photo use courtesy of Michael G. Brown

It's time for outdoor enthusiasts to get involved in the conservation of the state's public trust resources, according to Kris Goeden. She's enjoyed a lifetime of outdoor activities and said too many hunters and anglers are apathetic about conservation issues — believing there is nothing they can do.

"The people that are interested in those resources need to come forward and help us keep those as the best we can for our state," she said. "We have to protect that interest so it's there for future generations."

Goeden worries if outdoor enthusiasts don't get organized, the experiences she's cherished most, won't be accessible to her grandchildren.

"That time with my dad was the best," she said. "And then from there, we've taught all our kids to fish. Well, some of their best stories are about running out of water on the boat and drinking pickle juice because that's all we had left to drink. They still go back to those memories."

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Michael G Brown
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A small group of Sandhill Cranes roost on the Platte River near Grand Island, NE during the spring migration in March of 2021. Photo use courtesy of Michael G. Brown

The state Game, Fish and Parks department acknowledges the value of maintaining the state's outdoor heritage. Taxes on hunting, shooting and fishing equipment generated a record $1.5 billion in taxes in 2021 to support state conservation programs, like GFP.

The department's website says GFP uses those funds to enhance conservation efforts. That includes continuing public hunting access on privately owned land, teaching outdoor courses, conserving the state's wildlife and watersheds, mitigating the spread of invasive species, and stocking the state's lakes and streams with fish.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.