Man fishes in northern Wisconsin for walleye. (Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS)
Fewer South Dakotans are fishing, and that could spell trouble for the state Game, Fish and Parks department.
A majority of the department’s Division of Wildlife revenue funding comes from the sales of hunting and fishing licenses. GF&P relies on that money to conserve the state’s wildlife and outdoor recreation.
Over 10,800 fewer resident fishing and combination hunting-fishing licenses were sold through October of 2022, compared to the three-year average. That’s a decrease of $270,167 in revenue.
The GF&P hasn’t seen a nosedive in revenues, but resident fishing license sales point to potentially troubling long-term trends as South Dakota’s angling population ages. GF&P is working to find the reason behind younger generations’ lack of interest in sportsman activities and how to get them back outside.
By the numbers: GF&P license sales revenue
Part of that drop in resident fishing license sales is due to a change in licensing requirements. The department discontinued the resident junior combination license for 16- through 18-year-olds last year. As of 2022, minors only pay $5 for apprentice deer hunting and small game hunting.
That loss in 2022 fishing revenue is partially covered by non-resident anglers. Revenues from out-of-staters increased by about $180,000 in 2022 from the three-year average, in spite of GF&P discontinuing non-resident youth and family fishing licenses.
That 2022 fishing revenue loss is completely overshadowed by the increase in resident and non-resident hunting licenses sold through October, powered by small game licenses for pheasant hunting season.
Factoring in all sales, GF&P license sale revenue increased by $933,280 for 2022, but fell nearly $400,000 compared to 2021 sales. The agency had revenues just shy of $16.5 million at the end of October.
Habitat stamps, which are required for the purchase of general hunting, fishing and furbearer licenses, add another $4.6 million to department coffers. That revenue stream is dedicated to developing habitat on public lands and waters, or to provide public access to private land.
Less resident anglers since 2015 costs thousands of dollars
While it’s beneficial for hunting license sales to cover resident fishing license losses, the decreased interest in angling among residents is a concern.
“If we don’t have that money, we don’t conserve this. We’ll lose it and we’ll never get it back,” said Shala Larson of the GF&P. “I think it boils down to building outdoor families and making sure those opportunities stay available for South Dakota families and visitors.”
R3 is a nationwide movement to recruit, retain and reactivate interest in outdoor recreation. South Dakota implemented the philosophy a decade ago by hiring its first HuntSAFE coordinator to focus on educating residents. Larson was hired to the position in 2021.
Nearly 13,000 less resident fishing and combination licenses were sold in 2022, compared to 2015. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in the last seven years, which affects programming, conservation efforts and staffing.
“It’s got to change,” Larson said. “Those license dollars, that’s a huge chunk of people missing. Not only are we trying to get people outside, but we’re also trying to continue our conservation work. Everything revolves around those (license sales).”
How GF&P is reeling South Dakotans back
The department saw a significant bump in angling in 2020, with 15,593 additional license sales compared to 2019. But many of those people have yet to renew their licenses. Larson is set on finding out how to bring them back.
Larson will send out a survey in December to about 28,000 people, inquiring what motivated them to fish and why they stopped shortly after. The survey will be sent to individuals who purchased a fishing license between 2019-2021 but did not renew in 2022.
“Were their expectations not met? Did life get busy? Did they not get a good catch or find a species that would catch well? Was there no good shoreline access?” Larson asked. “We want to dig in and see what we can do to get these folks back.”
The department has already implemented several strategies to address the shrinking angler population since it released its strategic plan in May 2022. That plan includes shoreline access improvements, marketing to diverse or underrepresented communities and the expansion of urban fishing ponds. A hunting 101 program, meanwhile, connects new hunters with experienced hunters to encourage retention through mentorship and continued education.
“We’ll make as many changes that are in our control until spring fishing season,” Larson said. “It’s beyond just having a fishing program in a classroom.”
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