Growing Predator Problem in South Dakota
In February of 2019, the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association wrote a letter to Governor Noem thanking her for addressing the issue of predator control within South Dakota during her State of the State Address and asking to meet with her over changes that the organization would like to see within the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Wildlife Damage Management program. The SDSGA has worked on this issue since changes were made to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks predator control programs a decade ago.
Prior to 2009, the Animal Damage Control program within the GFP had an ADC supervisor, field supervisor and approximately 18 trappers across the state that addressed prairie dog, fox, beaver, nuisance animal and coyote problems. In 2009, the ADC and Wildlife Damage Control program, which historically addressed complaints regarding deer, elk, antelope, goose and turkey depredation were combined to make the statewide Wildlife Damage Management program which is used today.
With the merger of the two programs, the management structure changed as well as the percentage of time that the new wildlife damage specialist positions split between tasks that were traditionally done by each of the programs. “The amount of time the wildlife damage specialist spends doing ground hunting services, which includes traps, snares, calling, and M-44’s, were reduced by 32 percent in 2009 during the restructuring and re-prioritization of the predator control program,” states Scott Huber, former ADC trapper and currently on the SDSGA animal damage control committee.
Currently, there are 28 wildlife damage specialist positions with the GFP across the state. “Our wildlife damage specialist positions work hand in hand with the ranchers and producers in regards to damage done by wildlife,” states Keith Fisk, administrator of the WDM program. “What that specialist performs greatly varies throughout the state depending on what type of wildlife producers come into contact with in that area. It can range from dealing with deer damage on crops to loss of livestock from coyotes. Coyotes, of course, are a major problem throughout the state for our ranchers and farmers and our wildlife specialists work very closely with producers to try and manage them.”
The goal of the SDSGA is to see a professional, accountable, efficient and cost effective WDC. They believe that a shift in the management of the WDC towards supervisors with adequate predator control field experience that can properly train and guide new wildlife damage specialists will improve the efficiency of the program. “First of all, the local wildlife damage specialists that we have are doing a tremendous job with the resources that they have and are providing a great service to the local counties,” states Max Mathews, chairman of the Perkins County Predator Board and former president of the SDSGA.
“We are being told that it is hard to fill the supervisor positions right above the wildlife damage specialist with individuals with predator control damage experience because many of those individuals do not want to sit behind a desk,” explains Mathews. “If we could have supervisors that have trapping background that would be great for the wildlife damage specialists that are in the field especially when it comes to training and managing the ins and outs of the job.”
Other concerns that the SDSGA have with the current management structure is that it re-prioritizes activities away from predator control duties towards other wildlife duties that might negatively affect predator control. This includes activities such as preventative maintenance, which is the timely removal of coyotes in historic problem areas before those coyotes kill livestock. Currently, a producer has to call the wildlife damage control specialist with report of livestock damage before management of the coyote can occur.
Historically, an important part of controlling predators in South Dakota has been through the use of aerial hunting. In the past the aerial hunting program was managed within the South Dakota GFP. Currently, Wildlife Services has a plane that helps control the coyotes.
“After receiving feedback from ranchers and producers, the GFP hired a second aircraft that the department now pays 100 percent of,” explains Fisk. “The aerial hunting is a very active program, actively responding to thousands of predator calls. There are now two hunting air crafts in South Dakota flying between 500 and 600 hours a year depending on demand.”
The WDC also provides cost share towards local predator boards yearly depending on the available funding. This funding helps allow them to hire local pilots and planes that can help control coyote problems in specific counties. “We are very appreciative and supportive of the excellent aerial hunting services provided by the USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Service,” states Steve Clements, former SDSGA president and animal damage control committee member. “They are a great asset to the area and do a wonderful job. There is no doubt that livestock losses from predators could be greater if not for the excellent aerial hunting services provided by Wildlife Services.”
From a local county stand point, the wildlife damage specialists play an important role in helping control the predators in an area. “Our wildlife control specialists work very frequently on a local level with the county predator board, if there is one, and are there as often as they need to be to supply information, planning and assistance for all types of wildlife encounters including predator damage done by coyotes,” explains Fisk. “They assist the Wildlife Services plane as well as the planes hired by local predator boards in hunting coyotes and are a valuable resource to the local predator board.”
In the letter sent to Governor Noem, the SDSGA outlined the 2014 USDA survey on sheep and lamb predation which indicates that the South Dakota Sheep Industry lost $1.4 million to predators in 2014.
“Since 2009, sheep numbers have declined by 30 percent in the northwest corner of the state and 15 percent statewide even during times of high sheep and lamb prices,” explains Wade Kopren, president of the SDSGA. “Those declines in sheep inventory have led to huge losses in revenue to the respected counties as well as revenue losses to local predator control districts and the state fund that relies on a county tax formula based on sheep and cattle numbers.”
“The justification for any ADC program is not comparing the costs of the program to the resource losses or to the number of coyotes taken,” states Huber. “The justification for any ADC program is what it costs relative to what the resource losses would be in the absence of such a program. Without the basic understanding by those is charge of managing a predator control program, the program is doomed to fail.”
In response to concerns voiced by organizations like the SDSGA, the South Dakota GFP wants to make sure that the WDM is running as efficiency and as effectively as it can. “We will be hiring an outside entity in the next couple of months to come in and asses and review the program to see if adjustments need to be made to increase efficiency,” states Fisk. “We want to make sure that the program is as effective as it can be to serve the needs of the public.”