The new plan to change how some South Dakota deer hunting licenses are allocated to hunters hasn’t gotten quite so hostile a reception as its predecessor.
There are six deer hunting seasons that allow hunters to kill deer with guns. Licenses for those seasons are assigned to hunters through a lottery drawing. The number of licenses issued in a given year is fairly limited. In 2017, for instance, there were slightly more than 35,500 licenses issued. More than 52,600 hunters applied for those licenses.
Deer hunters, particularly those hunters who spend the time and money to hunt in multiple seasons are a passionate bunch. Between the first week of July when the first proposal was officially taken under consideration by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission and the first week of September when that proposal got its first public hearing, more than written 700 comments were sent in. The vast majority of comments were negative. In the end, on Sept. 7, the Commission scrapped the July proposal and started considering a new one.
Currently, hunters can apply for a license in all six seasons individually and have a chance, however slight it may be, to draw a buck license in all six seasons in a given year. Usually hunters don’t get more than one licence. Partially, that’s because about 70 percent of hunters only apply for one license every year. In 2017, there were 29,840 hunters who got one license.
The Sept. 7 proposal, if it gets approved, would force hunters to pick from one of four of the state’s six firearms deer seasons to apply for in the first limited issue license lottery drawing. The idea is to limit hunters to one license in those four seasons through two rounds of lottery drawings, which computer models suggest will lead to more individual hunters in the field without increasing the number of licenses available.
GFP uses a separate, biennial process to determine the actual number of licenses the state will issue in a given year. That process relies on data gathered through population surveys, harvest surveys and landowner tolerance surveys as well as various research projects to figure out how many deer can be killed by hunters without hurting the overall population.
The four seasons hunters would have to pick from under the Sept. 7 proposal are; Black Hills, East River, West River and any-deer Muzzleloader. Those four seasons are, generally, the most popular seasons. Licenses that allow hunters to kill bucks are the most popular licenses. Hunters would be able to apply for hunting seasons in Custer State Park and several national wildlife refuges separately as they can now. Special buck licenses, which are available in both the east and west river seasons are valid only on private land, and also would not be changed.
Kevin Robling, special projects coordinator with the Game, Fish and Parks Department and the architect of the deer licensing proposal said a lot of the frustrations hunters have been voicing stem from a misunderstanding of preference points, an arcane bit of statistical sorcery that have bedeviled western big game hunters for decades.
Basically, in South Dakota, a preference point increases a hunter’s odds of drawing a limited issue big game hunting license. But the thing is, South Dakota preference points aren’t actually preference points. They’re more like raffle tickets and you don’t have to buy them. A true preference system would guarantee that hunters with the most points get the license they want.
“We don’t do that because there would be some hunters that would have no chance to draw a license,” Robling said. “This way, you always have a chance. It’s not a big chance but it is a chance.”
Instead, South Dakota uses a hybrid weighted lottery system. The idea, Robling said, is to give everyone a chance, however slight, to draw a license every year. South Dakota’s preference points, while they do give folks who have gone longer without drawing a license a better chance, aren’t a guarantee. The system is further complicated by such things as landowner preference and the cubing of preference points.
The state’s preference system has, in the last three years, been changed and added to, which likely has added to the confusion. Before 2015, for example, hunters would automatically get a preference point for any season they applied for and didn’t draw a license in. Now hunters have to choose to buy a point if their application is unsuccessful or they can just buy a point without applying. Robling said he thinks the recent changes to the preference system might be playing a role in some hunters’ concerns about this year’s proposed changes to the licensing system.
The Sept. 7 proposal, if approved, would change the preference system again. This time, the changes would expand hunters’ options for using their points. Right now, deer hunters only get to use their points on their first-choice license during the first drawing.
Under the Sept. 7 proposal, hunters would be able to choose to use their preference points for their second choice license in the first draw if they wanted. If a hunter were unsuccessful in the first draw, they could elect to use their points in the second draw for any licenses leftover from the first draw. After the first and second draws, hunters would be allowed to use their points to draw a second tag in the event of a third draw. But, again, only if they wanted to. Any time a hunter chooses to use their points and is successful, they’d lose them.
The proposal would not pool preference points from multiple seasons. Points for the East River hunting season will only be good for use on licenses in the East River season. A hunter’s East River points would only be lost when a hunter draws an East River license after choosing to use their preference points. The same is true for the other three seasons hunters would have to pick from.
Hunters also still will be able to buy one preference point per year, for each season and save them up. So, if a hunter decides to apply for the West River season one year and draws a license, they’d keep all their points for the Black Hills, East River and Muzzleloader seasons and be able to buy another point for each of those seasons too.
How does South Dakota’s preference system work now?
South Dakota uses a hybrid weighted lottery system to allocate deer hunting licenses to hunters. It works sort of like a raffle. The raffle tickets are called preference points. A hunter can only buy one preference point per year for each season.They can only buy a point for a season they didn’t get a first-choice license in that year. The points cost $5 and once purchased can’t be used until the next year’s license drawing.
When a hunter applies for a limited-draw license they get to pick a first choice and a second choice. For example, if a hunter wants to hunt mule deer in the East River region and wanted to hunt where there’s some public land not too far from home, that hunter could choose the “any deer” license available in unit 36A, which covers Hughes County. The hunter could pick a second choice too but that choice doesn’t get the benefit of preference points.
When GFP conduct’s the East River deer licence drawing, the hunter’s name is put into a sort of digital bucket along with all of the other applicants’ names. Preference points act like additional tickets in the bucket. There are, in fact, six different buckets for most of South Dakota’s deer hunting units. The first three are for landowners who get the first crack at half of the licenses.
For the “any deer” license in 36A there were 175 licenses available in 2017. So, landowners were competing for 87 (50%) licenses. There were 50 landowner license applications so they all got licenses. The remaining 125 licenses then were made available for the general license drawing. That’s pretty typical. There were only 13 hunting units for ERD in 2017, where landowners took all of the licenses available (50%) for landowner preference.
The second three buckets are for the general drawing. The first bucket is for hunters who have two or more points. That bucket gets first crack at the general licence drawing. The next bucket is for hunters with one or more preference points and the third is for hunters with no preference.
Last year there were 125 “any deer” licenses available in 36A for the general draw. There were 55 applicants with two or more preference points. They all got licenses. That left 70 licenses for the 96 applicants with one preference point. The 26 hunters in that bucket who didn’t get a license were then able to buy a second preference point for the 2018 drawing. The 230 hunters who applied for the 36A “any deer” license without a preference point and thus didn’t get a licence were also able to buy a point for 2018. Though they could have purchased the point without applying for the license.
Of course, for some units, such as the West River region’s 35L, where there are more applicants with two or more preference points than there are licenses. This is where South Dakota’s preference point system gets complicated.
In 2018 there were 506 applicants who had two or more preference points for the 125 “any deer” licenses in 35L. The seven applicants who had seven or more points all got licenses. Their odds were — literally — exponentially greater than applicants with six or fewer points. That’s because South Dakota cubes the number of preference points a hunter has during the license drawing.
A hunter with seven preference points, for example, actually has 343 tickets in the bucket. Meanwhile, a hunter with six points has 216 tickets in the bucket. That’s 127 fewer chances to draw a license than someone with seven points. The result in 35L’s 2018 draw was that 18 of the 28 hunters who had six points got a license. The odds get less the fewer points a hunter has but 14 of the applicants who only had two points and thus 8 tickets in the bucket still were able to draw a license because there was so many people with 2 points, in this case 195 with two points vs 28 with six points.
If a hunter doesn’t draw their first-choice license they can purchase a $5 preference point for that season. If a hunter is successful in their first choice, their points are taken away for that season and that season only. So, in 35L, all the hunters who drew licenses in 2018, lost their West River preference points but kept any points they had for the state's five other firearms deer seasons.