Plans are taking shape for using revenue from South Dakota’s new outdoor-habitat fee

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — At $10 per resident and $25 each for nonresidents, South Dakota’s new habitat stamp that most hunters, anglers and trappers must buy as of July 1 could mean millions of dollars more per year for wildlife officials to use for improving public lands and waters.

That’s according to Jona Ohm, spokeswoman for the state Game, Fish and Parks Department.

She provided numbers Friday to KELOLAND News showing unique holders of South Dakota hunting or fishing licenses, or both, during the 2016, 2017 and 2018 calendar years. It’s how the department came up with an estimate of about $5 million that the electronic “stamp” could generate during a full year.

“There’s a lot of potential for variation, but this is an educated guess,” Ohm said. Noting the law didn’t take effect until July 1, and many sportsmen probably had already bought licenses before that date, she added, “The projection is not likely to be accurate for 2020 license sales.”

The law says a person generally cannot hunt, fish or trap without having paid the habitat fee — but only has to pay it once regardless of the number of licenses held The requirement doesn’t apply to anyone younger than 18, landowners using their own land, people hunting on private preserves, one-day licenses, or Hunt for Habitat applications. The revenue can’t be used for buying land.

The revenue will be divvied up, with terrestrial projects benefiting from hunting licenses and aquatic projects from fishing licenses. People who buy both kinds of licenses will have their fees split. The department must file a report each year to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Heather Villa, the state wildlife administration chief, on Thursday joined two other GFP staffers — habitat program administrator Paul Coughlin and fisheries program administrator Geno Adams — in making a presentation to the Game, Fish and Parks Commission that oversees the budget and sets regulations.

Coughlin said a 2018 survey of the department’s 720 game-production areas identified more than $19 million of needs and opportunities.

Adams said work is already planned at Long Lake, Murdo Dam, Belvidere Dam and Fairfax Lake, for example, while bigger waters such as Lake Mitchell, Newell Lake and Lake Kampeska have bigger challenges that need time. He said there are dozens of small dams that need work.

Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler said some license buyers have been asking questions. “A lot of people think we’re just trying to make money,” Hepler said.

The report to legislators will show the public year after year the money goes back out — “every dime,” Hepler said — and projects will have signs showing how they were funded. “It will be completely transparent,” he said, adding “This will make a difference.”

Wildlife Division director Tom Kirschenmann said people can still buy habitat stamps for 2020 even if they bought their licenses before July 1.

Commission chairman Gary Jensen of Rapid City said there isn’t an actual stamp. Kirschenmann said each license will note that a habitat stamp has been purchased. 

Senator V.J. Smith, a Brookings Republican, was prime sponsor of the bill. The lead sponsor in the House was Representative Herman Otten, a Lennox Republican.

“Frankly,” Smith told fellow senators during that chamber’s debate “this is blue-collar legislation.” He said he’d been a licensed hunter for 50 years and that pursuing pheasants had become “the sport of kings,” with landowners turning to paid hunting, and less land available for “the average hunter” in South Dakota as farmers and ranchers reduced their participation in the federal Conservation Reserve Program from about 1.7 million acres to about 1 million. The number of resident pheasant hunters last year was the lowest since 1938, he said.

The Senate approved the final version of their legislation 30-4. The nays came from Republicans Jeff Monroe of Pierre, Phil Jensen of Rapid City and Lance Russell of Hot Springs; and Democrat Craig Kennedy of Yankton.

Otten, asked during the House debate how much it would raise, said, “It’s in the area of $5 million.”

The House passed it 50-14. Opposition came from Republicans Caleb Finck of Tripp, Chris Johnson of Rapid City, Steve Livermont of Martin, Julie Frye-Mueller of Rapid City, Kevin Jensen of Canton, Isaac Latterell of Tea, Sam Marty of Prairie City, Tom Pischke of Dell Rapids, Tamara St. John of Sisseton, Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids, Taffy Howard of Rapid City, Chris Karr of Sioux Falls and Tony Randolph of Rapid City; and Democrat Michael Saba of Hartford.

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