Rancher calls GF&P’s 20 elk contingency licenses an ‘insult’

Some local ranchers, who worked with the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, to develop elk contingency licenses to reduce the number of antlerless elk on the landscape in times of drought, say the number issued this year, 20, should be much higher. Courtesy photo

RAPID CITY — The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is calling for 20 elk contingency licenses to be issued across four units this year, but ranchers who were involved in developing the elk management plan say that number is an insult.

Elk contingency licenses were created with the new elk management plan in 2015 as a way to provide immediate management response to reduced forage as a result of short-term drought conditions. Andrew Norton, senior big game biologist with the GF&P said the licenses are intended to temporarily reduce the elk population in areas that have been heavily affected by drought, the extent of which depends on where the elk population is relative to the department’s objective, in order to improve grazing conditions on forest service land that ranchers lease. South Dakota administrative rule has a cap on the contingency licenses, that is 20% of the total antlerless elk licenses issued.

But Aaron Thompson, president of the Spearfish Livestock Association who along with Eric Jennings of the S.D. Cattlemen’s Association and Casey Miller, of the S.D. Stockgrowers Association, helped establish the contingency licenses as members of the stakeholders group involved with creating the elk management plan, said the 20 contingency licenses planned for this season doesn’t even begin to cover the lost forage ranchers are facing. During their September meeting, Thompson called the number “beyond insulting,” and told the GF&P Commission that due to drought conditions ranchers are facing a 10% reduction in grazing in the Northern Black Hills, and a 5% reduction for the forest as a whole.

By comparison, Thompson said based on the Game, Fish and Parks population target of 7,500 elk in the Black Hills, and assuming an 80% success rate, the department’s planned 20 contingency license amounts to .276% reduction in grazing impact by elk. Instead, he said the department should be looking at issuing nearly 470 contingency tags, in order to level the grazing population with livestock.

“So, on the one hand you have the ranching industry that has their livelihood at stake in the matter, taking a forest wide 5% reduction in numbers,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, is the department suggesting that 20 additional tags scattered across the forest is adequate to mitigate over grazing?”

But Norton said the department relied on data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and input from the U.S. Forest Service, which was incorporated into a decision support table created in the elk management plan, to determine the need to issue five contingency licenses in each of four elk units in the Central and Eastern Black Hills. Based on NRCS models from Aug. 15, forage production estimates were 80% to 92% of normal within the elk management units. He said the 20 contingency licenses will add 4% to the 490 antlerless elk licenses in the Black Hills, while still remaining within the population objective of 6,000 to 8,000 elk in the Black Hills established in the elk management plan.

The contingency licenses, Norton said, are not being issued in the Southern Hills because while the elk population was 90% higher in 2020 than it was in 2016, drought conditions are not as severe, causing some landowners who are aware of the damage elk can do to get nervous. However, Norton said, the management objective is to reduce the elk population in the Southern Black Hills and currently allocated antlerless elk license numbers have been set to meet the decrease objective.

By comparison, Norton said in the Northern Black Hills, where drought conditions are much more severe, the elk population is already 40% below objectives.

“So we’re going to want to increase elk in there, and we’ll be less likely to want to allocate contingency licenses there,” he said.

“We’re trying to be specific about where we harvest these elk,” Norton continued. “I will point out that two years ago when we flew, we were at 6,500 elk with an objective of between 6,000 to 8,000. If the current elk population was above objective, more contingency licenses would have been recommended, but because we are already below objective in some units, fewer licenses were recommended. As a result of elk numbers being below objective in the Northern Black Hills the past two years, less grazing competition with cattle from elk has already occurred in these units, which will mitigate losses to forage as a result of drought conditions.”

But Thompson said when he worked with Jennings and Miller, the three men advocated for the creation of the contingency licenses as a way to manage the herd based on science and data that involved carrying capacity and what the landscape can sustainably support.

All three men ranch near Spearfish.

“Our intent was never to beat down elk numbers for no good reason,” he said. “The blinding disparity between the livestock industry’s response to this drought and the Department’s response to this drought cannot be explained away by quibbling over details, pointing to the NRCS forage availability calculations or any other manner of squirming. The discrepancy in response between livestock’s 5% reduction and the department’s suggested herd reduction of .267% is too great for this to be explained by flawed data and miscalculation.”

Kirschenmann pointed out that not all of the units where contingency licenses were issued are on public property. Some of the land east of Custer State Park and near Wind Cave National Park, is on private property where the landowners have specifically asked for more licenses.

“Those are almost entirely private property areas where we are currently issuing 40 antlerless licenses,” Kirschenmann said. “So when you add those five in they are a bit more significant than it looks like in the entire Black Hills.”

Kirschenmann also told the commission that despite the ranchers’ desire to have more contingency licenses, the department has also been feeling pressure from landowners who like to see the elk population grow.

But Commissioner Travis Bies said, “If we go into an extended drought for another year, game and fish cannot respond to that until the fall hunting season, where the producers are experiencing their loss up front. So, how is the harvesting of elk helping them with their forage if we’re retroactive behind the situation that is happening?”

“That’s exactly one of the reasons we added these contingency licenses,” Kirschenmann said. “We wanted a more immediate response. One thing that we’ve learned through time is that we can kill down. We did it in 2005 and 2007, we issued out licenses and we drove the population down. So the point with the commission at the time was to receive a lot of comments and a lot of folks coming in asking what the heck we did to the elk herd and with that we were dropping licenses. We learned that if we want to we can kill elk and we can make a difference to the point where we hear pretty adamantly from that other side. The thing that we can’t do is put them back out there as quickly as someone raising cattle could. Certainly we could have a more immediate response. We could issue more licenses and kill more elk. I’m confident of that. What that would mean is it would take a considerably longer time to build that elk herd back up. if we wanted a more immediate response, it would be to issue more licenses here rather than waiting to see what happens with the drought.”

Following some further discussion, commissioners urged Game, Fish and Parks Department staff to get input from producers before bringing plans out to the public. Specifically, he recommended that staff check in with representatives from the S.D. Stockgrowers Association, the S.D. Cattlemen’s Association, Thompson and other major stakeholders.

“We do have an opportunity where public trust is concerned and I would suggest that as we are putting these plans together each year, before we bring it out to the public, that we should be having conversations with those producers out in the field,” he said. “(We should) be having more contacts so that it is not a surprise when we roll the number out. I think that’s an important component. I’d love to see the elk numbers come up as well, but I understand there is another side.”

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