Study found satisfaction among many South Dakotans served by wildlife-damage program

Capitol News Bureau

MADISON, S.D. (KELO) — When her office issued a request for proposals last spring, one of the questions Governor Kristi Noem wanted answered was whether South Dakota’s wildlife-damage management program could run better in the state Department of Agriculture or the federal government.

Officials from the Wildlife Management Institute looked in depth at the program, especially the past 10 years since two separate operations were combined, and they are recommending it stay in the state Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Reviewers from the Pennsylvania-based organization presented their results Thursday afternoon to the Game, Fish and Parks Commission that oversees the department.

The review included interviews with three commissioners and a variety of department employees. There also were four online surveys of different groups, such as people who contacted the program for help in the past few years and the general public.

WMI reviewer Chris Smith said approximately 80 percent of the program’s service recipients who participated in their group’s survey said GFP staff had been very responsive or extremely responsive to their situations.

Bill Moritz, another WMI reviewer, said the program would be helped by clear objectives and ways to reach them. He said the staff also could be somewhat expanded. Moritz described the program as “sound and well managed.”

None of the commissioners asked questions afterward. “That’s a really good report,” chairman Gary Jensen, of Rapid City, said. 

Governor Noem and GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler issued a joint statement Thursday evening that some changes are coming for the program.

Those include spending 300 more hours in the air and two additional pilots for predator control — crews now fly 1,100 to 1,200 hours annually — and asking the Legislature for two additional positions for animal damage specialists so the western South Dakota workload can be spread out.

A WMI official signed the $97,800 contract May 7. The institute had also conducted a study for GFP in 2015, looking at management plans for deer, elk, antelope and mountain lions.

The governor and secretary announced other planned changes Thursday. Among them are enhanced equipment such as thermal imaging technology for predator control activities, with a focus on coyote depredation, to assist livestock producers, particularly from February through June, the primary months for calving and lambing.

There also will be a strategic plan reflecting WMI’s recommendations.

“As this plan is developed and executed, we will host regional forums with landowners, producers and other stakeholders to be sure they are being heard and they are receiving the services they need. We value their partnerships and look forward to making positive changes to our wildlife damage management programs,” Hepler said in the statement.

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