South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department restructuring Wildlife Damage Management program

By July 1 of this year, the restructuring of how the state handles predator and other wildlife problems should be finalized.

The 23 job positions will still exist, but instead of 19 state trappers and four specialists, all 23 will be wildlife damage managers. They will all still work on dealing with predator and nuisance animal control. This concerns species such as coyote, mountain lion, skunk and other carnivores. The main concern for livestock producers in the west-central part of South Dakota is coyotes. The managers will also work on dealing with other wildlife that cause damage to producers, such as deer, antelope, elk, turkey, geese, pheasant and others that eat producer's crops.

Art Smith is the administrator of the Wildlife Damage Management (WDM) program, which is under the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Smith said, "The overall reason for the change is twofold. One is the unmet needs of producers across the state. The other is loss of federal funding."

Admidst complaints from various producers across South Dakota, Smith said, "Our biggest criticism is a natural reaction in that producers are most concerned with their livestock or crops in their area. Problem is, we still have unmet needs throughout the state with many species of wildlife."

The Sheepgrowers Association, with Steve Clements, Philip, as its president, is one of the main organizations calling for more attention to coyote control. Cutbacks on the amount of time of WDM personnel, trappers, doing predator control is a major concern. The association and some cattle producers question the efficiency of having WDM personnel work across the state, depending on when and where wildlife problems occur. The association also questions the percentage of predator control work that will be received compared to the local funding that has been designated for predator control.

Smith said. "We used to have two pilots for aerial coyote control. Now we have a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services where they are handling the aerial depredation." According to Smith, the WDM program still uses depredation hunters for big game depredation complaints. "The weather is a large factor. The animals (mostly deer) become yarded up in the winter months around hay bales for easier hunting,"

"We will move our 23 wildlife damage specialists around depending where and when they are needed," said Smith. He said that the major time of year to control coyotes and reduce livestock losses is January through April, the lambing and calving season. "Coyote problems exist on both sides of the river. It is not a livestock versus grow crop issue. We do a lot of coyote control West River and East River," said Smith. June is the season to control goose caused losses in the northeast part of the state. During early spring, pheasants can practically destroy early corn crops.

Clements said that most coyote predation on lambs occurs between May and the time the lambs are sold in August.

According to Clements, "The GFP plan will result in a reduction of animal damage control services by 45 percent in western South Dakota. GFP Secretary Jeff Vonk and Director Tony Leif devised a plan to combine the WDM program and Animal Damage Control (ADC) program into one statewide WDM program."

Clements said, "In an interview with KBHB radio station, Leif stated that GFP is expanding WDM services statewide without cutting positions. In order to accomplish this goal, they are eliminating three ADC trapper positions in the western third of South Dakota, reducing ADC services statewide and redirecting those services towards an increase in goose and deer problems east of the river. During legislative testimony, Vonk said that he couldn't justify spending any more money on the ADC program when we only had $164,000 in coyote and beaver damages. The correct way to look at this is despite spending $1.3 million and the best efforts of the ADC program, producers still experienced $164,000 in confirmed damage from coyotes and beaver. The cost-to-benefit justification for any ADC program has to consider the dollars of damage that would occur in the absence of an ADC program, not in the presence of one."

Clements continued, "The recent proposal calls for a reduction from seven ADC trappers in this area who spend 85 percent of their time doing ADC work to four trappers who spend 80 percent of their time on ADC work. Currently ADC trappers are required to spend 15 percent of their time on WDM duties and other GFP responsibilities, This constitutes a reduction in ADC service by 45 percent. County commissioners have to be wondering why their county livestock tax assessment hasn't been reduced proportionately."

Smith said that the predator and nuisance animal control portion of the program is funded through three sources. The first is the federal appropriations, which used to be about $600,000 and will now be approximately $450,000. But this will be first used to fund the Wildlife Services's aerial coyote control program, leaving only about $200,000. The second source is a two-to-one match of general GFP license funds to the county livestock assessment amounts. The third source is the county livestock assessment amounts. For their share of the ADC fund, counties are annually charged, out of their general property taxes, an amount based on the number of livestock in that county. The 2009 charge for each county is 25 cents per head of sheep and six cents per head for all cattle. According to the Haakon County Auditor Patricia Freeman, the latest United States Department of Commerce Census of Agriculture states that 72,488 cattle and 3,669 sheep are to be taxed, and that the recorded charge is $5,266.53 for 2009.

Smith said that funds for the grazer side of the WDM program come entirely out of general hunter license fees. On top of those basic hunting license fees, a $5 hunting license surcharge is split in half to pay for walk-in programs and to pay for grazer damage control.

Clements continued, "Under the current proposal, one ADC trapper position became a full-time mountain lion specialist to address the increase in mountain lion complains. The remaining six ADC trappers interviewed against each other for four positions. Following recent interviews, the ADC trapper from Harding County, the ADC trapper from Jackson and Haakon counties and the ADC trapper from Perkins County were given the choice to transfer to the Hot Springs district or transfer to three positions east of the river.