Compiled by Journal staff
As the new secretary of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, Jeff Vonk faces a range of issues crucial to wildlife populations in South Dakota, as well to the hunters and private landowners who are so important to fish and game management.
To learn more about Vonk and his philosophies, the Journal asked the assistance of five people deeply involved in GF&P issues. Their questions — and Vonk’s replies — offer a glimpse at what hunters, anglers, landowners and conservationists can expect from the new guy in charge.
-- Larry Nelson, Buffalo, rancher involved in hunting lockout:
Many farmers and ranchers feel that the Game & Fish tramples property rights in the way it uses the open-fields doctrine. Why should a private landowner allow hunters on his property when their presence — or even just the presumption of their presence by a conservation officer — could leave that landowner open to a warrantless search?
Vonk response: Clearly, the decision to allow hunters onto their property rests solely with individual private property owners. It is, in fact, lawful for conservation officers to enter open fields on private land to conduct compliance checks to determine if hunters or anglers are properly licensed and abiding by other laws and regulations. In these situations, the landowner is not being subjected to a warrantless search, as is suggested. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the provisions of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which affords citizens protection against unreasonable government intrusion, do not apply to activities that occur out-of-doors, in open fields. In addition, state law exempts certain persons who are deemed “privileged” from being charged with trespass. Our courts have found that law enforcement officers acting in the performance of their duties fall into this category.
Under state and federal law, wildlife has long been held as a “public trust” resource. In other words, fish and wildlife are not owned by an individual but are held in trust for the benefit of the public at large. The state has been entrusted to manage these resources through the GF&P. Hunting, fishing and trapping are sports that require participants to be properly licensed and to abide by regulations designed to sustain these important public resources. Conservation officers are charged with enforcing the laws and regulations enacted by the people, including conducting inspections of those being regulated. Without the ability to make contact with hunters, anglers or trappers on private land, it would be impossible for conservation officers to do the job they are hired to do.
I am committed to continuing the dialogue with individual ranchers who still have concerns. This issue is also a high priority for the Wildlife Issues Panel, established by GF&P two years ago. I am committed to carrying out our open fields responsibilities in ways that are respectful of the rights of private property owners and their guests.
-- Charles Kruse, Scenic, rancher near Badlands National Park:
Pastures in some parts of western South Dakota are being wiped out by prairie dogs. Why can’t the state do more to control prairie-dog populations and provide compensation to landowners who suffer financial losses from prairie dogs and other wildlife?
Vonk response: Needless to say, I didn’t deal with prairie dog issues in Iowa. That being said, on my first day at work, one of the very first questions asked of me from the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee members dealt with prairie dogs. I made a promise to Sen. Jim Lintz that I would visit the Conata Basin and meet on the ground with landowners and other players involved with this issue. I will set up a site visit this spring. I am also aware that the Legislature recently approved a Prairie Dog Management Plan, and I believe the plan should lead and direct our actions on this issue.
It is my understanding that we have specific guidance to control prairie dogs that encroach from public land onto adjoining private land. We have been active in these situations, and I would hope that anyone who qualifies for and has requested this assistance has been helped. Also, as I understand it, the S.D. Department of Agriculture works with private landowners, those who do not adjoin public land, to assist them and provide sales of quality, approved rodenticides for use on private land. Finally, I understand that one yet-to-be-resolved issue is how the U.S. Forest Service deals with prairie dog and black-footed ferret management on their lands. Staff is working with the Forest Service as they develop options for a new prairie dog management plan involving the Conata Basin.
I have never been a proponent of direct damage payments or “compensation” for wildlife-related damages. I assume that, as was the case in Iowa, GF&P simply does not have enough money to adequately pay for every wildlife damage situation. And I assume that in addition to prairie dogs, a host of other wildlife species in South Dakota are probably involved with damage issues. I believe that it is far better to try to work together to solve over-abundant wildlife problems than to make direct damage payments.
-- Dr. Sharon Seneczko, Custer, president of Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation:
Would you consider changing GF&P lion management season so that the kill quota for the fall mountain-lion season would be adjusted before the hunt depending on overall lion mortality — including vehicle strikes, GF&P removal, accidental trapping and disease?
Vonk response: I plan to lean heavily on my staff to get me current on the history and the issues surrounding our mountain-lion management. As I understand it, the process currently used to determine the recommended mountain
lion harvest limit already takes into account all forms of cougar mortality, including those animals hit by vehicles, problem lions removed by staff or otherwise verified as killed from other sources.
I know from previous experience that there is always a lot of emotion surrounding mountain-lion management. Interested stakeholders extend far beyond landowners and hunters. You can rely on the fact that we will continue to use sound science as the foundation of every management decision and hunting season recommendation that we take to the GF&P Commission.
-- Ken Edel, Rapid City, angler, officer in Black Hills Anglers:
Your agency is proposing $1.7 million in projects for the Spring Creek watershed, with more than half the money coming from fees and taxes paid by anglers. What is the process for selecting these projects, and who is involved?
Vonk response: The Spring Creek watershed project was selected as a top priority by our Wildlife Division staff and subsequently recommended in the FY 2008 budget, which was approved by the GF&P Commission and recently reviewed by the Legislature’s Appropriation Committee.
The idea of habitat improvement in Spring Creek began several years ago when a watershed study was conducted by a group of partners, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Black Hills Fly Fishers, and Game, Fish & Parks. This study, completed in 2005, identified sources and mechanisms that have led to degradation of Spring Creek and Sheridan Lake. We have also learned over the years that Black Hills anglers have a strong interest in small impoundment fishing, improved stream water quality, improved water quality of Sheridan Lake and the trout fishery below Sheridan Lake. All of these things provided strong justification for a comprehensive Spring Creek watershed project.
Restoration of Mitchell, Newton Fork and Major lakes, part of the larger Spring Creek work, will provide improved fisheries and increased sport fishing opportunity. Improvements at the three lakes will include sediment removal, renovation of dam structures, dam safety and stream routing. These three small impoundments are on major travel routes and close to high public-use areas.
As you can imagine, this multi-faceted project will still require additional planning, design work, public involvement and coordination before any work is done. I would hope for and expect continued stakeholder involvement as each of these specific project components come on line for actual implementation.
-- Stan Lieberman, Rapid City, sportsman and former GF&P commissioner: As a hunting-safety instructor, I’m concerned about the declining interest in hunting among young people, in part because it has grown increasingly difficult in South Dakota to find a place to hunt. How will you address the problem of hunting access and encourage more youngsters to take up the sport?
Vonk response: The future of hunting rests with our ability to recruit and maintain new people in the ranks of active sportsmen and women. One of the keys to success in this challenge is access to good hunting areas. The department continues to purchase land from willing sellers as game production areas. The state Wildlife Division owns these lands and manages them for wildlife habitat and public recreation, especially hunting. We pay full agricultural land assessed property taxes on the 175,000 acres of GPAs.
We also lease private lands for walk-in public hunting. In western South Dakota we look for good range land and, in more central and eastern areas, Conservation Reserve Program acres. Each fall, we publish maps of the enrolled areas, which totaled a record 1 million acres in 2006. The program offers fair, competitive lease payment (up to $6 per acre for good CRP land), requires that all hunting be on foot and provides for certain immunity from liability to protect the landowner from lawsuits as a result of hunting accidents. In recent years, we have been working on a new system of long-term leases involving large ranch units in western South Dakota, where we negotiate terms with a landowner that may include management changes to provide better wildlife habitat. These often involve grazing management systems, areas set aside for undisturbed nesting cover, planting food plots, creating wetlands and planting trees. We also lease areas near Pierre specifically for public goose hunting. They range from decoy areas to designated pits or shooting strips to all types hunting or unrestricted access. Many are also open to pheasant hunting until the geese arrive.
In addition, our youth hunting seasons are designed to help get young people involved in hunting, with the help of mentors who offer guidance in safe, ethical hunting practices. Attracting youngsters to the sport requires cooperation from all sportsmen and conservation groups, as well as GF&P. Our future in the field depends on it.