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Controversial South Dakota deer-hunting license system changes still a possibility

PIERRE, S.D. — The proposed changes to South Dakota’s deer-hunting license system aren’t dead despite the state Legislature’s Rules Review Committee decision, Nov. 20, to send the proposed changes back unapproved to the Game, Fish and Parks Commission.  

In October, the GFP Commission approved  a rule that would have limited deer hunters to one application in a joint drawing for the state’s four most popular firearms deer-hunting seasons: Black Hills, East River, West River and muzzleloader any deer. Hunters would only be able to draw one license through the first two drawings.

Under the current system, hunters apply for each season individually and have the chance to draw a license in each season. The problem, as GFP staff and several hunter surveys showed, was that because hunters could draw multiple first-choice licenses in a given year and the number of licenses available is limited, other hunters were going without any licenses at all, sometimes for several years at a time. Some of those hunters stopped applying for licenses altogether.

The idea behind the rule changes was to give hunters better odds of drawing their preferred license more often and put more individual hunters in the field each year. GFP staff estimated the rule change would have put around 3,600 more individual hunters in the field without the state having to issue more licenses.

Opposition to the plan was vocal and, often, vitriolic. Two petitions aiming to get the rule killed were circulated. The GFP Commission also received hundreds of comments opposed to the rule during the roughly 60-day comment period prior to its vote approving the changes.

During last week’s Rules Review Committee hearing, two motions to approve the rule change failed. The first, made by Rep. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, who chairs the committee, failed to get support from another committee member. The second motion got a second but the vote deadlocked three-to-three and thus failed. Rep. Julie Bartling then made a motion to revert — send back — the rule. That motion passed.   

State law lays out nine criteria the Rules Review Committee can use to send a rule back to the agency or commission that created it. Those criteria include such things as the rule overstepping the authority of the commission or a rule creating an undue burden on the people most likely to be affected by it. During last week’s Rules Review Committee meeting, none of the nine criteria were specifically cited by the committee before they deadlocked on final approval and ultimately sent the proposed rule back to the GFP Commission.  

Opposition to the rule on the parts of Rep. Julie Bartling, D-Gregory, Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City and Sen. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, the three committee members who voted against final approval, seemed to be based on what they saw as a lack of public support for the rule.

“I think there’s just too much opposition to this,” Bartling said during the hearing.

Later, Russell said he’d been getting weekly visits from constituents who were upset about GFP Commission decisions such as the proposed deer-hunting rules.

“I believe the perception is that we have an agency that doesn’t listen to the people,” he said.

When the Rules Review Committee made its decision,it didn’t give a whole lot of detail on what, exactly, either GFP Department staff or the GFP Commission got wrong in the process that went into drafting and ultimately adopting the rule change. Nor did members of the Rules Review Committee give the GFP Commission any direction as to what should be changed.

“There are a lot of options open to the commission right now,” GFP Wildlife Division Chief Tony Lief said on Nov. 27.

It is possible the commission could vote to approve the deer-hunting license rules again and send it back to the Rules Review Committee unchanged or the commission could scrap the proposal altogether. What to do following the Rules Review Committee decision will be a topic of discussion during the Dec. 6 GFP Commission meeting in Pierre. That meeting is scheduled to begin Dec. 6.

Barry Jensen, GFP Commission chair, said he’d like to see the proposed rule kept alive.

“I know the commission and myself think the premise of this is pretty sound,” Jensen said of the deer-hunting license rule.

If the commission passes the rule again, with or without amendments, it will again be subject to approval by the Rules Review Committee. The committee won’t meet again until sometime after the 2019 legislative session ends in March. The committee will have at least a few new members.

There are rumblings of legislation on deer-hunting licenses being written for the 2019 session too, which could negate any rule the GFP Commission approves.

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