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As Bounty Program Ends, Questions Linger About Effectiveness

Michael Zimny

A bounty program designed to increase ring-neck pheasant numbers will close Monday.

The state incentivized trappers to catch and kill 50,000 small mammals during nesting season, while promoting the state’s trapping heritage.

As the bounty wraps up, there’s disagreement over whether the plan encouraged more trapping

Earlier this year, Game, Fish and parks set aside a million and a half dollars for a bounty program aimed at raccoons, striped skunks, badgers, opossums and red foxes. The so-called Nest Predator Bounty Program is spending $500,000 alone on submitted tails.

License revenue pays for the bounty program, but there’s no license needed to submit a tail for payment.
Governor Kristi Noem says the bounty aims to restore one of the things South Dakota is known for – its hunting and fishing culture and more specifically, its pheasant population.

“We had less habitat then we've ever had before. In recent years, we've had less people out there hunting, less people buying fishing licenses, less people trapping than ever before. And we needed to take some new action to turn that around if we wanted to maintain this important part of our culture, but also a big part of our economy in South Dakota. We have a lot of folks who come to South Dakota and spend their money enjoying our outdoor life and wildlife."

Part of the strategy to increase pheasant numbers was to get more people trapping. Earlier this year, the state gave away free live traps to South Dakota residents. So far, the state has distributed more than 8,000 traps, with another 7,600 still in the pipeline. The state will spend nearly $950,000 on those live traps. It’s up to each trapper to dispose of the animal and submit the tail.

The program has a social media campaign, to get younger people outside and trapping. The campaign uses the hashtag #secondcenturytrapper.

Game, Fish and Parks Deputy Secretary Kevin Robling says about 15 percent of the bounty program trappers have been younger than 18.

“So, we are getting the youth involved, we are getting those families involved. That was the original intent of this next predator bounty program, to get families outdoors and recreating and bringing back that trapping heritage and getting families outside,” Robling says.

Not everybody thinks trapping is an ideal way to get young people to enjoy the outdoors.

Nancy Hilding is a volunteer with the Prairie Hills Audubon Society, a conservation-minded non-profit. She points to the opossum, one of the animals on the bounty list.

“An opossum is a marsupial, like a Kangaroo, it carries its babies around in its pouch,” Hilding says. “If a young kid comes along and finds a opossum in the cage the opossum may have 12 or 13 babies in its pouch. Under law, they’re required to shoot the animal. So the little kid is going to have to take the mommy out there a shoot her and either let the little babies die in her pouch, slowly, or shoot each of the 13 babies in the head with a bullet to legally kill them under South Dakota hunting rules.”

The Prairie Hills Audubon Society has proposed several rule changes, including making trappers check their traps more often. There will be a public hearing on those proposals at the next GF&P commission meeting in September.  

So far, most of the animal tails submitted to the bounty program have come from Minnehaha County. Game, Fish and parks extending existing rules to allow for trapping on state public lands, which expires at the end of August.

A state wildlife report on the ring-necked pheasant says habitat management should be the primary tool to increase pheasant population.

Larkin Powell is a Professor of Animal Ecology and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He says the bounty program will not help South Dakota’s pheasant population. Powel explains that hens have only a 10 to 30 percent chance of pulling off a successful nest.

“What you would predict to be fairly localized efforts by a few trappers around the state, they’re really not going to put a dent in the population of predators,” Powell says.

Powell says the tried and true method is habitat management. He says grass and wildflowers bring insects that hens can feed on. Powell’s research focused on conservation reserve acres in north eastern Nebraska, which tripled the regions pheasant production.

Pheasants Forever agrees.

The advocacy group says habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent, and that removing predator species is too expensive for widescale use over the long term.

Governor Noem says the nearly million-and-a-half-dollar bounty program is strategic. The second component of the strategy is a habitat initiative.

Noem got lawmakers to approve $1 million to put into habitat restoration on marginal land. After it failed several times, the measure passed last session.

“They talk about the money spent in this other area, getting people outdoors in the bounty program,” Noem says. “But we also added additional revenues to habitat programs that wasn’t there before. While they may not be happy that they think revenue is going out the door in one direction, we’re also bringing in new revenue that we’ve never had before. We will have 4,000 new acres of grass and habitat planted in South Dakota specifically from the second century initiative.”

Some of the governor’s critics, like the Audubon Society, say the money that paid for the bounty program would have been better spent on habitat initiatives.

As the bounty program ends, Game, Fish and Parks officials say the organization will assess if it will issue another bounty program.