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GF&P stands behind nest predator bounty program despite criticism, uncertainty of effectiveness

Since the bounty program kicked off in 2019 as part of Gov. Kristi Noem’s Second Century Initiative, 136,683 nest predators have been removed, excluding the first month of this season.

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Cash Martinez demonstrates how he sets his traps to catch and remove nest predators on Thursday at his home in Emery. Martinez was one of about 4,000 trappers who participated in the state's Nest Predator Bounty Program, which was created to enhance pheasant nesting success.
Sam Fosness / Republic
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PIERRE, S.D. — While the Nest Predator Bounty program has become controversial among some South Dakota outdoor enthusiasts, officials with the Game, Fish and Parks say its delivering on some of its goals.

The program has aimed to enhance pheasant and duck breeding success by reducing populations of nest predators, along with increasing outdoor recreation and wildlife management.

Although it’s unclear whether the bounty program — which entered its third season in the spring — has led to an increase in pheasant and waterfowl populations, Nick Harrington, GF&P communications manager, said it has delivered on its goal of getting more South Dakotans into trapping and outdoor sports.

“Overall, the Nest Predator Bounty program has been going extremely well. We’ve created a program that has really been encouraging families to get outdoors and have an enjoyable time,” Harrington said.

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Since the bounty program kicked off in 2019 as part of Gov. Kristi Noem’s Second Century Initiative, 136,683 nest predators have been removed, excluding the first month of this season.

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The program pays trappers $10 for submitting the tail of every mammal they legally and properly trapped that’s defined as a pheasant nest predator. Among the predators on the list included striped skunks, raccoons, opossums, badgers and red foxes.

Harrington and GF&P officials have highlighted the program’s ability to increase the number of trappers in the state as a major success. According to GF&P’s data, in 2020, the program had 1,125 participants. Last year, that number jumped to 2,774, according to GF&P’s data. Of the 2,774 participants in 2021, 29% of them were youth trappers, which Harrington said is “exciting to see.”

“Youth participation has been growing rapidly. We increased to 29% youth participation in 2021, and we are excited to see what our youth participation numbers will be following this additional opportunity in March for 2022. Getting these youth and their families involved in conservation and the long-standing tradition of trapping is critical to keeping our South Dakota outdoor heritage strong,” Harrington said.

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Ethan Hegg, of Mitchell, sets his trap that he will be taking out to his family's farm near Woonsocket. Hegg has been participating in the state's Nest Predator Bounty Program for the past two years.
Sam Fosness

While GF&P leaders have touted the predator bounty program since its inception, some South Dakota outdoor enthusiasts have criticized it.

John Cooper, a former GF&P secretary and commissioner, is among those who have stood against the program, calling it a “bad program.” During an online panel discussion hosted by SD News Watch, Cooper had choice words to say about the bounty program, claiming “It’s not doing anything at all for pheasant management or habitat.”

Some wildlife biologists have also pointed out that the bounty program hasn’t had much of an impact on the pheasant population.

“It probably hasn’t had a big impact on the pheasant population. It’s just hard to quantify what the program did for pheasant numbers, but predator control definitely helps pheasant nesting. That's always a good practice when done right,” said Matt Morlock, assistant director of South Dakota’s Pheasants Forever and former biologist.

After the GF&P Commission decided in 2020 to end the yearly pheasant brood count survey that shared scientific data by comparing a pheasant-per-mile index across the state, it eliminated one way to statistically measure whether the nest predator bounty program is increasing the pheasant population.

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Despite the uncertainty of whether the predator bounty program is impacting the pheasant and waterfowl population, GF&P officials continue to stand behind the program three years in.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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