PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The habitat stamp that’s now required of most people age 18 and older who hunt or fish in South Dakota has brought in more than $9.2 million during its first two years.

That’s what state lawmakers heard Wednesday during a presentation by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

But several legislators focused more on the bottom line. They wanted to know why only $3.8 million had been spent for land and water improvement projects so far, leaving a nearly $4.5 million balance.

“What are you waiting for?” asked Representative Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat.

State Wildlife Division director Tom Kirschenmann said projects generally are conducted on contracts that can span multiple budget years. He said other factors have been weather conditions and the department’s limited staff.

“We just don’t have the ability to zero it out in a given year,” Kirschenmann said.

He later showed the lawmakers maps with scores of completed projects, along with $3.2 million of land projects and $4.2 million of aquatic projects that are either planned or in progress.

The balance will be drawn down in a year or two, according to Kirschenmann.

Representative Randy Gross, the Elkton Republican who chairs the panel, asked whether the department intended “philosophically” to build a reserve.

No, answered Kirschenmann, “We want those dollars to go on the ground and be used.” He showed a six-page list of what’s been done so far.

Reprresentative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican, quizzed Kirschenmann about whether these projects were happening before the Legislature approved the habitat stamp in 2020.

Kirschenmann said some that are similar were, and some of the new ones were on lists for future work, but the department budget couldn’t afford to do so many.

Karr requested that the department present a broader view that brings in a historical perspective. Kirschenmann said the projects “go above and beyond” what was previously happening.

State law says the department shall use the habitat-stamp money “for the purposes of enhancing terrestrial habitat on public lands, providing additional public access to private lands and aquatic habitat enhancements on public waters.” The department can’t use the money to purchase property.

Kirschenmann said some of the habitat-stamp money has started going toward the department’s Conservation Enhancement Reserve Program (CREP) that operates in the James River Valley. In exchange for public access to the ground, the state program pays extra to landowners who already have enrolled acres in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

Kirschenmann said he’d heard of a “few” landowners who decided against CREP specifically because of the public-access requirement.

The habitat-stamp revenues will eventually provide $1.5 million atop the $3 million that already is allotted to CREP, with a goal of 100,000 acres in the James River area through east-central South Dakota. Kirschenmann distributed a handout showing three pages of new CREP contracts with landowners from habitat-stamp funds.

He said CREP will expand sometime this winter into the Big Sioux River valley, from north of Watertown to Sioux Falls, with a goal of 25,000 acres.

Karr, a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee that assembles state government’s budget each year, asked for a chart that reflected the CREP plans, so that he could see how much was left for the one-time projects.

Senator Jean Hunhoff, the Yankton Republican who’s the other co-chair of Appropriations, suggested that Kirschenmann also show the GOAC panel information on other environmental projects, such as the Big Sioux River clean-up that the state Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources has under way.

“I’d like to see a big picture,” Hunhoff said. “Just food for thought.”