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State launches efforts to fight duck-hunting decline and protect habitat

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State launches efforts to fight duck-hunting decline and protect habitat

Sep 18, 2023 | 5:49 pm ET
By Joshua Haiar
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State launches efforts to fight duck-hunting decline and protect habitat
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A duck hunter sits amid cattails and reeds along a publicly conserved wetland south of Madison. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

State officials are embarking on a comprehensive plan to boost duck-hunter numbers that have been declining for two decades, and to preserve waterfowl habitat in the process.

The plan focuses on providing better access for hunters. It’s a joint venture between the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, the South Dakota Waterfowl Association, and the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

Duck season participation dropped 29% from 33,950 in 2005 to 24,166 in 2022, according to the department. Meanwhile, the number of nonresident hunters, which is subject to license caps, has fluctuated between 3,800 and 4,700 since 2012.

(Courtesy of GF&P)
(Courtesy of GF&P)

A survey from 2009 revealed that two-thirds of the state’s duck hunters had difficulty finding places to hunt, with 85% pointing to overcrowding as their primary concern. Access to private lands – often granted in decades past after a talk with a landowner – has been reduced. Some hunters blame the rise in paid hunting guides.

“They can offer landowners a lot more money than, well, your average South Dakotan would be comfortable paying,” said Zach Hunke, with the South Dakota Wildlife Federation. The group lobbies on behalf of in-state hunters and anglers who are concerned about the commercialization of hunting and fishing.

The decline isn’t just a matter of fewer people enjoying a pastime; it has implications for wetland conservation in the state. Duck hunter groups serve as some of the most vocal advocates for wildlife habitat conservation, and hunting licenses and fees provide funds for wildlife management and conservation projects. For example, all duck hunters are required to buy a Federal Duck Stamp ($25) in addition to their migratory bird certificate ($5) and small game license ($33). Stamp revenue funds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s bird habitat conservation efforts. 

To address the declining hunter numbers, GF&P has a multifaceted strategy.

One focus is investing department resources into state and federal James River and Big Sioux River watershed conservation initiatives. The department will work to acquire leases in those watersheds from private landowners who agree to create public hunting spaces. Another goal is to create new routes to prime public hunting spots that are currently inaccessible to those unable or unwilling to trek through mud and waist-high water.

The second part focuses on enhancing the hunting infrastructure on public lands, with 20 sites already targeted. This includes boat ramps, parking lots and equipment drop-off points. All of the new and improved infrastructure is included on GF&P’s online, interactive hunting atlas.

“For those people who are new to hunting but don’t know where to go, or for those from outside the state, this may be an opportunity to help with that,” said Ryan Wendinger, regional habitat program manager with GF&P, during a recent Game, Fish and Parks Commission meeting.

Department spokesperson Nick Harrington added during the meeting that GF&P’s mapping service is used by “thousands to tens of thousands.”

Funding for the expansion will come from hunting license revenues, federal grants, and the recently introduced Habitat Stamp ($10 for residents and $25 for nonresidents) that everyone 18 and older is required to purchase before obtaining a hunting, fishing or trapping license in South Dakota. The funds are used to enroll private acres into public conservation and improve the habitat quality of acres already enrolled.

State park access for hunting

Another effort that was announced during the recent meeting includes 3,221 newly designated hunting acres in state parks, starting during the fall and spring of 2024. 

“Our department was able to put some signs out there to designate what areas hunters can access,” said Deputy Parks Director Al Nedved. 

He said the department aims to maintain a “safe buffer” from campers and hikers, and different kinds of firearms and hunting are allowed depending on the site.

“We have some parks that are archery only, for example,” he said. “Hopefully next year we can come up with a plan to expand acres.”