New Proposal Addresses Deer Firearm Regulations

Tristen Polensky
Editorial Intern
Shutterstock image

Among South Dakota hunters, landowners, and wildlife managers, there has been a rift driving them to heated discussions and multiple new proposals regarding new ways firearm deer licenses are allocated. A fourth revision of the proposal has found some common ground, but many will still have to accept the changes whether they are solicited or not if approved by the Game, Fish, and Parks Commission and the Legislative Interim Rules Review Committee.

Kevin Robling is a Special Projects Coordinator for the South Dakota GFP, taking on contention issues and reviewing strategic plans for the department. He was interested in wildlife management at a young age, and decided he wanted to be a big game biologist at the age of 12. He earned his undergraduate and Master’s degree through South Dakota State University, and recently moved to Pierre to become Department Secretary Kelly Hepler’s policy advisor.

Robling discussed the new proposal and why they feel it’s necessary to move forward in supporting wildlife management. As a department, they strive to provide more hunters their preferred deer license more often, and to get as many deer hunters in the field as possible. Their ultimate end game with this proposal is to reduce the amount of deer hunters that are unsuccessful applicants for multiple years in a row. The current system allows for this to happen.

“The reason this all came about is we are continuously having unsuccessful applicants, year in and year out. That’s been an issue for the department and one of the concerns is if an individual applicant is unsuccessful for two or three years in a row, there’s a chance they might quit trying to get a license and we lose another hunter,” Robling said.

There are six deer firearm seasons each individual deer hunter can apply for each season, including West and East River (Special Buck included), Black Hills, Muzzleloader, Refuge, and Custer State Park.

“Under the current system, a resident applicant could draw a first-choice, first-buck tag for all six of those seasons. The issue is we have 53,524 deer hunters that applied for deer licenses last year, of which approximately 70% of those folks apply for just one season, one unit, one place. We have others who want to hunt all six seasons in different units across the state. We end up with a lot of unsuccessful applicants who don’t draw deer licenses that year, while we have others that draw multiple deer licenses every year because they have their name in multiple draw buckets,” Robling explained.

The new proposal has gone through multiple changes and would now allow for a deer hunter to apply for two, instead of all six, seasons in the first draw. “We have about 6,344 hunters that applied for three or more of the six seasons last year in the first draw. That means the rest applied for two or less, so that’s how many deer hunters this will impact directly each year. Those 6,344 hunters actually submitted 22,292 applications last year, and this would reduce that number to around 12,000 applications because their names are going from being in numerous draw buckets to only two of those six draw buckets.”

The first iteration of the proposal was to only allow one season per applicant, and the new proposal allows for two. Robling said the draw system is complicated and there’s no perfect way to address it, but the main message is that no deer hunter will have more than two licenses until the third draw.

“There are about 36,000 hunters that will only apply for one season, and their draw probabilities will increase. However, we hear from both sides. Some folks are potentially losing the opportunity to submit multiple applications. You go from six to two, and the first proposal was only allowing one license. There was definitely opposition to that concept. The commission had a lot of discussion and different iterations but the department feels like they found some middle ground with the hunters,” Robling said.

While many stakeholders are more satisfied with the new proposal, there are still oppositionists to the new regulations of license allocation. Mark DeVries is a regional vice president for the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and also a member of their wildlife management committee. He’s a rancher near Belvidere, SD and from the perspective of a landowner and also a hunter, doesn’t believe the new proposal will bring a positive outcome.

“There are guys that have been hunting out here for 15-20 years, and the landowners want to keep the relationship with them because they know and trust them.” DeVries believes the new proposal may not directly affect landowners, but is afraid it will impact their already existing partnership between them and the hunters they allow on their lands each year. If the hunters aren’t allowed the licenses they’ve had in the past, they won’t be able to hunt on these lands. The landowners will have to adapt to a larger quantity and unfamiliar deer hunters, which may cause private property issues.

DeVries said he hasn’t heard too much uproar from ranchers, but observed that “the safest place for a giant buck is in a room of all these people that disagree because they’d rather shoot each other.” In a country where political and social divisions are obtrusive, DeVries’s point hits home.

If the new proposal passes, the draw dates will all be moved up to June, as opposed to staggered dates running from June to September. Robling said 47,000 of the 53,000 deer hunters wouldn’t see a difference in the online application process except for the option to use preference points in the second and third draws along with free preference for youth and a bonus preference point for first time applicants. The new proposal doesn’t affect youth or archery season applicants. Robling said the allocation number of licenses will remain the same; it’s the distribution of those licenses that would be changed.

Despite the difference in opinions, both sides are eager to find a solution and make a decision that will benefit the vast majority of deer hunters, wildlife management, and landowners. Robling said balance is what the GFP strives for, but finding that balance proves to be difficult at times.

“Our hunting heritage relies heavily on user participation and without hunters, we don’t have wildlife management and that’s where our concern lies. We want to increase participation the best way we can, in as many ways we can.