South Dakota’s Hepler talks about quick rise to fish and wildlife association’s presidency

Capitol News Bureau
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CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. (KELO) – The leader of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is the new president for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Secretary Kelly Hepler talked Friday about what he calls “a great opportunity” after the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission meeting wrapped up at Chamberlain.

Just a few hours earlier, the commission’s chairman, Gary Jensen of Rapid City, read a statement congratulating and recognizing Hepler.

“It’s really something,” Jensen told him. “It’s terrific that you’re there.”

Hepler will serve through September 2020. He succeeded Ed Carter, head of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Hepler said the association’s purpose is to protect states’ rights across the country. He’s been involved since the 1990s.

“It’s a committee-driven organization, so I’ve worked with various committees and regional associations. Then I got appointed to the executive committee a couple years ago, and within the executive committee they have a presidency, where you ascend up to the chair of the executive committee, then the first vice president, and then the president.

“And I was in the queue to come up in two years to be president of the association — and unexpectedly, the two presidents in front of me, or the two directors in front of me, can no longer take those positions. So, then I went to a meeting in Saint Paul (Minnesota), walked in the door and realized that I’m the next president.

“It was quite the surprise,” Hepler said.

Governor Dennis Daugaard announced December 23, 2014, that Hepler had agreed to return to South Dakota and run the state department. Governor Kristi Noem decided she would keep Hepler as a Cabinet member when she took office this year.

Hepler said the presidency can benefit South Dakota.

“There’s so many commonalities we have in the state of South Dakota with other states across the country,” he said.

One is chronic wasting disease among deer and elk.

“It’s a huge issue. We just spent quite a bit of time at this past commission meeting talking about it. There’s a bill going through Congress which would help provide funding, not only for the states but people that have captive deer herds.

“So, we have an opportunity to sit down with Secretary (David) Bernhardt from Interior and talk about that, how the funding’s going to be divided. That will have direct application back to the state,” he said.

Another bill in Congress is called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Hepler said it is “a huge opportunity” for South Dakota.

“It brings $16 million in habitat funding every single year to the state. (The association) is the lead agency fighting on the (Capitol) Hill along with some other collaborations of many other groups to get that legislation through,” he said.

Hepler’s predecessor, Jeff Vonk, rose to the association’s presidency in 2012. And Vonk’s predecessor, John Cooper, became its president in 2005. (Click here for the full list.)

Hepler said his “greatest concern” is how the Game, Fish and Parks Department will operate while he serves the one-year presidency.

“To do this job correctly, you have to go back to (Washington) D.C. quite a bit and you have to travel around the country, and even potentially into Canada once or twice, because we’re also associated with Canada.

“You know I already have a completely full schedule (at GFP). I have great staff. You know we have a governor who is very engaged with the department working her Second Century initiative. She’s excited about that.

“So, it is going to be a compromise. But fortunately, I recently hired a deputy secretary Kevin Robling who’s very competent. I have great faith that he’ll be able to step in behind me. But it’s a balance. I told the governor — I’ll tell the viewers — my priority still is GFP in South Dakota,” Hepler said.

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