State highway ditches open soon for mowing in three western South Dakota counties

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Mowing rights of way along state highways can start June 15 in Gregory, Lyman and Tripp counties in south-central South Dakota, state Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said Monday.

Other South Dakota counties west of the Missouri River already are open. Mowing can start July 10 in counties east of the Missouri River.

The restrictions are intended to help protect nests of pheasants, other upland game birds and waterfowl.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission talked Friday about getting law enforcement and state’s attorneys to more actively pursue cases against adjacent landowners who jump the gun. 

GFP Commissioner Russ Olson of Wentworth said Governor Kristi Noem supports stronger prosecution. He said it would be an important piece of her Second Century initiative for protecting wildlife habitat.

“She doesn’t want to see people out mowing the ditches before the ban,” Olson said, He added, “The governor’s in favor of enforcing this ban.”

The first-year governor convinced the Legislature to approve $1 million that would be matched from outside state government for habitat improvement.

She also had the Game, Fish and Parks Department start a nest-predator bounty program, with $500,000 shifted within the GFP budget.

The bounty pays $10 per tail for raccoon, badger, striped skunk, opossum and red fox from April 1 through August 31, unless the $500,000 cap is reached first.

Another step by Noem to stir interest in trapping was the department’s give-away of live traps. The department is gradually distributing up to three of the traps each to 5,500 South Dakotans who registered for them.

The department’s live tracking showed 23,877 tails submitted as of mid-day Monday. About 17,900 were raccoons.

Deputy GFP Secrectary Kevin Robling said the state-highway mowing rules protecting game-bird nests were set by the state Transportation Commission and it would be up to that panel and the Transportation Department to enforce them.

There’s a mixed message from various levels of government in South Dakota, according to Jon Locken, a GFP commissioner from rural Bath. 

Locken said he received a letter at his place that urged mowing township ditches by July 1, a target that doesn’t match the state-highway mowing restrictions.

“I think it’s ridiculous, and someone should be informing that association of townships we don’t really want this,” Locken said. 

Robert Whitmyre, a GFP commissioner from rural Webster, said the adjacent landowner officially has property rights to the center of the right of way on a county or township road.

That ownership is different from a state or federal highway, where the state government officially owns the ground.

Farming practices have changed too, with more emphasis on yields from as many square feet of ground as possible. “Everybody’s reaching for those right of ways, and I think that’s a bad policy,” Locken said.

Doug Sharp, a GFP commissioner from Watertown, said he’s let the South Dakota Pheasants Forever organization know about the GFP commission’s interest in tougher enforcement.

Approximately 55 percent of South Dakota’s pheasants typically hatched from road ditches, because that’s where suitable cover is, according to Sharp. He wants officers from South Dakota’s counties and townships in the discussion, calling it “a real opportunity” to get some pheasant habitat back.

The GFP commission’s chairman, Gary Jensen of Rapid City, said a letter could be written to the state Department of Transportation urging more enforcement: “There are some things we could do,” Jensen said.

Monday morning, the governor announced she’s moving the 2020 pheasant hunt to Sioux Falls. The 2019 hunt will stay at Pierre, its traditional home since then-Gov. Joe Foss started promoting it some 60 years ago.

Noem said she wants to make the hunt into a bigger event, using the Sioux Falls Convention Center and adding a public concert at the PREMIER Center. Steve Westra, a former legislator from Sioux Falls, is commissioner for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. He was quoted in her news release.

Hughes County, normally a reliably Republican stronghold, voted for Democratic legislator Billie Sutton in the governor’s election last year. That was after Noem defeated Marty Jackley, who was state attorney general, for the Republican nomination for governor. Jackley has opened a private practice in Pierre.

The GFP discussion of county and township roads surprised Terry Sletten, executive director for the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships. She cited several sections of state law Monday specifically giving township boards authority over mowing along township roads.

Here are some of South Dakota’s key state laws:

31-5-21.   Mowing of ditches on state trunk highway–Rules–Priority to abutting landowner. The Transportation Commission may, by rules promulgated pursuant to chapter 1-26, authorize the mowing of ditches on the state trunk highway system. The rules shall establish when mowing may be done, by whom mowing may be done, how and where mowing may be done, and the time limit for removal of hay if mowing is done for hay production. However, the rules shall provide that the original owner or assigns of land abutting the ditches on the state trunk highway system shall be given priority for mowing.

31-31-2.   Weed removal on township roads–duty of abutting landowner. The owner or occupant of any land abutting or adjoining upon township roads shall cut, remove, or destroy or cause to be cut, removed, or destroyed, grass, weeds, trees, and brush growing on or in the right-of-way of such roads, provided that such roads are left in such condition that any and all undergrowth thereby or thereon can be cut with a mower. A violation of this section is a petty offense.

31-31-3.   Time for weed removal. Grass, weeds, trees or brush referred to in 31-31-1 and 31-31-2 shall be cut, removed, or destroyed between the first day of September and the first day of October of each year, or between dates annually fixed by the board of supervisors.

Here’s the state rule on mowing state-highway rights of way:

70:04:06:06.  Start of mowing. No mowing of the right-of-way may begin in the west river counties of Gregory, Lyman, or Tripp before June 15 and east of the Missouri River before July 10. All mowing by permit must be completed by September 1 each year. Mowing of the median by contract may begin on the date the contract is approved and must be performed during the hours between sunrise and sunset. The contractor shall notify the department 24 hours before beginning mowing. The department may mow medians and areas within the rights-of-way prior to July 10 to control noxious weeds and provide increased safety to the traveling public.

Read Governor Noem’s announcement about moving the pheasant hunt to Sioux Falls in 2020 at news.sd.gov.

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