Public-land hunters and anglers push for one of their own to fill vacant commission seat

By: - October 31, 2022 4:28 pm
Game, Fish and Parks Commission members (top row, from left) Russell Olson, Stephanie Rissler, Robert Whitmyre, Julie Barling, (bottom row, from left) Jon Locken, Travis Bies and Charles Spring. The commission's eighth seat is currently vacant. (Photos courtesy of GF&P)

Game, Fish and Parks Commission members (top row, from left) Russell Olson, Stephanie Rissler, Robert Whitmyre, Julie Barling, (bottom row, from left) Jon Locken, Travis Bies and Charles Spring. The commission’s eighth seat is currently vacant. (Photos courtesy of GF&P)

Some public-land hunters and anglers feel underrepresented by the current Game, Fish and Parks Commission, and they hope to see a board member from a grassroots group – like the South Dakota Wildlife Federation or Black Hills Sportsmen Club – appointed to a vacant seat. 

The GF&P Commission consists of eight members appointed by the governor to four-year terms. The commission’s authority includes decisions about the dates of hunting seasons, license fees, hunting and angling rules, and a host of other responsibilities for state parks.

State law says no more than four commissioners may be from the same political party, no less than four shall be farmers, and three must live west of the Missouri River while five must be from East River.

None of the commissioners are legally required to be public-land hunters or anglers. Dana Rogers is a spokesperson with South Dakota Bowhunters Incorporated, a group that represents bowhunters. He said commercial hunting and tourism appear to be held in higher regard than blue-collar South Dakotans. 

Rogers said he likes everyone on the commission, but wishes Gov. Kristi Noem would select more “blue-collar, avid backcountry hunters” to serve.

“In my conversations with the administration, what I have been told is that we do have a voice when it comes to these issues because we have stakeholder groups, and about half of the makeup of those stakeholder groups are usually sportsmen,” Rogers said. “All that is, is a working group – dialogue to give information to the department to take forward. They do not have a single vote at the commission level.”

There is a non-landowning, public-land hunter and angler on the commission. That’s Stephanie Rissler, who was appointed by Gov. Noem in 2021. 

“Our family actively hunts, fishes, camps, hikes, we are ATV enthusiasts, we snowmobile, boat,” Rissler said. “We have taught our kids the same lifestyle, using public land and public recreational opportunities.”

But some public-land hunters want guaranteed representation under the law.

Zachery Hunke, president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, said the group lobbied to get public-land outdoors enthusiasts more representation on the commission during the 2020 legislative session in Pierre.

That bill would have guaranteed no more than two commissioners would make two-thirds of their annual incomes from commercial hunting operations, and at least four commissioners would be people who actively hunt, fish or camp.

The bill was never formally introduced.

“We weren’t specifically told we weren’t going to get the support needed, but it was kind of implied,” Hunke said.

Hunke and others who want more representation have data indicating the impact of hunting and fishing by South Dakotans. GF&P commissioned a study in 2016. 

The report showed that over $1 billion is spent annually by hunters and anglers in South Dakota. About 70% of that came from South Dakota residents rather than out-of-staters who travel to South Dakota for hunting and fishing opportunities.

The Governor’s Office did not provide a response to South Dakota Searchlight questions regarding the current makeup of the GF&P Commission.

Regarding the currently vacant commission seat, Noem’s office provided a written statement: “The commission appointee will be announced at the proper time.”

Because of the current makeup of the commission and the laws dictating a commissioner’s qualifications, the person appointed to the vacant seat must be an East River Republican.

The vacancy was created by Commissioner Doug Sharp. Sharp was appointed by former Gov. Dennis Daugaard and reappointed by Gov. Kristi Noem but resigned in May. Sharp did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The Democratic candidate for governor, state Rep. Jamie Smith, said he would ensure resident public-land outdoors enthusiasts have representation on the GF&P Commission if he’s elected on Nov. 8. 

“Having both the sportsmen and the landowners represented is how I’d work to make sure we come up with policies that are good for South Dakota,” Smith said. “I can totally understand the frustration that the sportsmen have.”

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Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.