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Bob Arbach carries a goose back the cedar tree he was hiding behind Sunday, Feb. 14 2016.

There was a bit of a shouting match in the meeting hall at Drifters in Fort Pierre on Dec. 4.

More than 100 people attended the Game, Fish and Parks Department’s public meeting on South Dakota’s Missouri River waterfowl refuges. The department’s staff was looking for some feedback on a set of draft criteria that would later be used to evaluate each of the 21 waterfowl refuges along the South Dakota portion of the Missouri River.

Waterfowl hunters, those folks who spend an inordinate amount of their time chasing ducks and geese around, are a passionate bunch. So, anytime anyone suggests that some changes might need to be made to how waterfowl and waterfowl hunting are managed, more than a few of those folks get more than a little concerned. Such was the case at Drifters the other day.

There was a palpable feeling of anger in the air as GFP staff, with help from some of the attendees carried tables out of the room and brought more chairs in. The GFP crew may have underestimated the turnout a little bit.

It’s pretty clear that most of the folks in the audience were afraid GFP had decided to remove all or some of the 21 Missouri River waterfowl refuges and that the public meeting was held to provide cover for the GFP Commission to rubber-stamp the move. The GFP staff at the meeting said, unequivocally, that was not the case. Instead, Kevin Robling the department’s special projects coordinator said, department staff were looking for feedback on a set of criteria they wanted to use to evaluate each refuge over the next year or so.

The GFP’s strategic plan calls for the department to periodically review it’s rules and regulations, including state refuge designations, to make things easier for the state’s hunters and anglers and to provide more or better hunting and/or fishing opportunities where possible. About 30 waterfowl refuges in the eastern half of the state recently were evaluated. Some of them were changed, others were done away with. Most of those refuges were left in place, albeit with a bit of change.

For it’s part, the Missouri River refuge system hasn’t been comprehensively evaluated since 1985, Robling said. A few refuges were added to the system in the early 2000’s as part of the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Access Area, which was created by an agreement between public land hunters and private landowners to provide field hunting access in exchange for restrictions (refuges) on waterfowl hunting along the river and allowing more non-residents to hunt near the river.

As far as GFP staff was concerned, the Dec. 4 meeting was a failure. They didn’t get much of what they wanted. That being feedback and suggestions on their refuge evaluation criteria. What they did get was an earful about how ticked off goose hunters are that the goose hunting along the Missouri River in South Dakota has gotten worse over the last 10 years and how the refuges have been abused by deer hunters, pheasant hunters and anglers. So, in that sense, the meeting was a roaring success.

Those angry hunters have a point. The GFP’s own numbers show a precipitous decline in the number of geese harvested along South Dakota’s section of the Missouri. In the late 90s, said Rocco Murano GFP’s senior waterfowl biologist, hunters were 60,000 geese per year along the river. In 2017, the harvest was estimated at about 20,000 geese. Part of that decline can be blamed on the fact that there are fewer waterfowl hunters. In 2001, there were about 25,375 canada goose hunters in the state. By 2017, there were 9,762.

At roughly the same time, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey, South Dakota went from wintering 327,922 canada geese in 2000 to wintering 105,066 in 2016. That’s a drop of more than two-thirds in 10 years.

What happened? Well, that same USFWS data might provide the beginnings of an answer. In 2000, North Dakota wintered 31,518 canada geese. But by 2016, our neighbors to the north were wintering 222,846 canada geese. Just shy of 200,000 geese started stopping short of South Dakota.

Meanwhile, Nebraska went from wintering 209,857 canada geese in 2000 to 175,322 in 2016. Kansas saw its wintering canada goose numbers rise from 135,826 in 2000 to 141,779 in 2016. The Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey has been done during early January every year since 1955.

North Dakota has three Missouri River waterfowl rest areas, each of which is only closed to goose hunting. The state also closes goose hunting at 2 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from Nov. 22 to the end of the season, which is in the last week of December. And, for what it’s worth, the number of acres planted to corn in North Dakota roughly tripled from 1.08 million to 3.4 million between the years 2000 and 2016, according to the USDA.

Another big concern voiced during the Dec. 4 meeting was that deer and pheasant hunters as well as anglers in boats have been pushing ducks and geese off the refuges in November and December. After the meeting, one participant, Josh Lieberman, went so far as to solicit signatures in support of his proposal to ban hunting of any kind in Missouri River waterfowl refuges every year from Nov. 1 until the ice thaw in the following spring. His proposal also would close the river’s take line to all hunting for 10 years and ban boat traffic in the refuges, among other things.

Any attempt to ban hunting on what would be an entirely public piece of ground, is likely to meet stiff resistance from both upland and big game hunters, not to mention public hunting advocates.

So far, there have been no new rules regarding Missouri River Waterfowl refuges proposed to or adopted by the GFP Commission. Any potential change to any state refuge has to go through the formal rulemaking process, which, by state law, includes public comment periods, public hearings and the state legislature’s Rules Review Committee.

That goose hunting along the Missouri River in South Dakota is a shadow of what it used to be is hard to argue with. What to do about it, is harder to answer. Though, shouting down an attempt to honestly and openly evaluate one aspect of the Missouri River waterfowl hunting ecosystem isn’t helping anything.

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