GFP faces big-game review report and holds public hearing on lions

 By Bob Mercer

State Capitol Bureau

The first two hours of the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission’s meeting here Thursday afternoon will involve some of the most important listening in the modern history of trophy hunting in South Dakota.

The commission will hear from an outside consultant on its findings and recommendations on big game management, a study that Gov. Dennis Daugaard ordered be done at the commission’s expense.

And the second hour of the meeting will find the commission holding a public hearing on the 2014 hunting season for mountain lions, the species whose management in the past decade led in many ways led to the governor’s decision to get an outside review of the state Wildlife Division.

The results of the study are being kept under wraps from the general public until 1 p.m. MT Thursday when the reviewers from the nationally recognized Wildlife Management Institute of Gardners, PA, present the report.

The governor’s private briefing on the report was scheduled for today (Wednesday), according to his chief of staff, Dusty Johnson.

State Game, Fish & Parks Secretary Jeff Vonk, a member of the governor’s cabinet, doesn’t expect the review will have any bearing on the commission’s decision regarding the 2014 mountain lion season that will be made either Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.

“I don’t expect that the WMI report will contain recommendations of the type that would have an impact on the season setting process that is currently under way,” Vonk said.

The 2013 season for mountain lions was notable for three reasons.

The commission set the 2013 harvest limit at its highest levels – 70 females or 100 lions total, whichever was reached first – since a hunting season was resumed in 2005.

The harvest for the first time didn’t exceed the previous year. Hunters took a total of 61 lions: 26 males and 35 females. That was down from 73 in 2012.

And because the harvest limit wasn’t reached, the 2013 season ran its full length rather than closing early.

State Wildlife Division biologists have set a goal of 150 to 200 lions as the goal for the Black Hills population. Their recommendation for the 2014 season, which would actually start Dec. 26, 2013, is a harvest limit of 50 females or a total of 75 lions within the Black Hills fire protection district’s boundary.

The main Black Hills season would run through March 31, 2014, unless one of the harvest levels was reached.

The harvest limit includes lions taken by hunters in Custer State Park, where there would again be special limited-access hunts within the main season.

Essentially the biologists have suggested setting the harvest limit at the approximate level of the lions actually taken in the 2012 season.

Some adjustments to the Custer State Park hunts are also proposed

The public hearing on the lion season starts at 2 p.m. Thursday (MT). The commission meeting is at the Spearfish Holiday Inn.

Mountain lions are one of the big-game species whose management by the Wildlife Division and the commission was considered in the outside review.

The commission and division work together in setting seasons in a process where the biologists make recommendations at a formal time to the commission at a public meeting, followed by the commission making a formal proposal at that meeting and a public hearing typically one or two months later. After the hearing the commission makes a final determination on the season.

Because there are multiple species that also include deer and elk, that process happens multiple times during a year. The reviewers looked at the internal processes leading to the biologists’ recommendations and the public process involving the commission.

While the commission and division established a formal management plan for mountain lions several years ago, there aren’t management plans in place for all big-game species.

Wildlife Management Institute was selected through an official “request for proposal” state contracting process. The agreement called for delivery of the report no later than Oct. 1, with WMI to receive up to $131,050 for the work.

The governor’s decision to direct the commission that the study would be done and the commission would pay for the study marked the first time in recent memory that a governor took such action in Game, Fish & Parks policy in South Dakota.

Johnson, the governor’s chief of staff, said the recommendation to conduct the study was made to the governor by a policy advisory team that was discussing big-game management. He said the team members were himself, then-advisor Jason Glodt, then-chairman of the commission Jeff Olson of Rapid City and former commissioner Tim Kessler of Aberdeen.

Glodt has since left the governor’s staff to help form a political consulting firm whose major client is former Gov. Mike Rounds, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Olson was finishing his final year on the commission in 2012.

Johnson said that Daugaard sought independent reviews on a variety of topics in his three years as governor.

“He believes that periodically inviting scrutiny by a fresh set of eyes is a part of being a good manager,” Johnson said.

Daugaard had long heard from landowners who believed they were suffering too many crop losses and from sportsmen who wanted more game to hunt, making it difficult to determine “the truth,” according to Johnson. That led to the independent third party being sought to look at the department.

“He wanted to know what the department is doing well and what needs to be improved,” Johnson said.

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