It was a good day in the field for Rich Widman of Brookings – who is quick to point out that he was with a hunting party last fall when this photo was taken, and he didn’t shoot all these birds himself. Widman is now the state’s unofficial hunter-in-chief – he’s the newly elected president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation. By Widman’s side is his faithful hunting companion, Pokey, the family’s cocker spaniel. Photo courtesy Widman family
• Widman president of state’s largest conservation group
BROOKINGS – Rich Widman is a nice guy – an affable, low-key businessman.
A native South Dakotan, he’s a hunter and a fisherman, too, hardly the kind of guy you’d describe as a tree-hugger or a wild-eyed environmentalist.
But as the newly elected president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation (SDWF), Widman has just become one of the state’s most important conservationists, and if you get him talking about his favorite subject, he’ll tell you he’s engaged in a high-stakes, political battle – one he’s playing for keeps.
Opponents are lining up to deprive South Dakota sportsmen of their heritage, he argues, and the state’s largest conservation organization is prepared to fight.
“The South Dakota Wildlife Federation is the only organization that has two lobbyists working in Pierre to make sure we protect our hunting and fishing rights – a way of life we’ve known for years,” Widman says.
“Every year, bills are introduced in the Legislature where people try to take a little bit away from the sportsmen. Every year, little by little. If we don’t fight back, it’s a lost cause; we’re gonna lose, and I’m not gonna let that happen.”
A Brookings financial planner, Widman took on a higher profile in the conservation movement just two weeks ago when he accepted the presidency of the statewide wildlife group. The leader of the Brookings Wildlife Federation (BWF) for the past three years, he had served as a vice president with the state organization under another sportsman with Brookings ties, Bill Antonides. A former Game, Fish & Parks conservation officer and now a self-employed, certified wildlife biologist in Aberdeen, Antonides is stepping down from the wildlife group’s top spot to run for the Legislature.
“It’s kind of an honor for me to be taking over during the National Wildlife Federation’s 75th year, its diamond anniversary,” Widman says. The South Dakota Wildlife Federation has been active since 1945, and now includes 15 local and regional affiliates.
As he assumes leadership of the statewide organization, Widman’s focus is on three goals:
n “First, to keep fighting to protect our South Dakota heritage and the traditions of hunting and fishing;
n “Second, to get more youth involved, so that they’re able to enjoy the wilderness the way we did when we were growing up;
n “And third, to let people know what SDWF does. We have 3,300 members, but we should have 50,000 with all the sportsmen and sportswomen in the state. A lot of people don’t know about us.”
That’s something he aims to change.
Widman makes the case that SDWF is the unquestioned leader not only in preserving the rights of sportsmen and sportswomen, but it’s the state’s No. 1 conservation group, seeking to protect all wildlife and to preserve the state’s grasslands and wetlands.
Widman comes by his enthusiasm for the outdoors naturally. His dad took Rich and his brother (who’s currently a SDWF vice president) on hunting and fishing field trips from the time they could hold a pole, and it’s that legacy he wants to preserve.
“Even though we’re hunters, we love wildlife, and sometimes people don’t get that,” Widman says. “Hunters are sometimes the best conservationists out there, because we want to protect and preserve. We love the thrill of the chase, but we also want to make sure wildlife is around for future generations to enjoy. In our organization, there are lots of people who aren’t hunters – they just want to make sure that wildlife is here forever.”
Widman is a Mitchell native, but he’s made Brookings his home since his college years in the ‘80s. After a brief foray into law enforcement – “I found out it wasn’t really what I was cut out for” – he worked his way back to Brookings and in 1995 began a career in financial services. His wife, Jennifer, was his college sweetheart; she was a member of the SDSU English faculty for many years but now serves as director of The Center for the Book, a part of the South Dakota Humanities Council. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Lara.
And the family also includes Pokey, a 6-year-old cocker spaniel who thinks he’s a hunting dog and loves nothing better than to accompany his master into the field.
“It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re out with a bunch of guys calling, ‘Here Pokey!’” Widman jokes. “My daughter got naming rights, and she didn’t think much of my suggestions – Killer or Fang.”
Heading United Way
Deeply involved in their community, Rich and Jennifer have just agreed to serve as co-chairs for the 2012 Brookings Area United Way Campaign.
Widman remains an avid hunter, but fishing these days is a rarity. “You almost need a boat to fish anymore,” he explains.
He recalls the times in his youth when “we had pheasants in the shelterbelts like crazy, bass half the size that I was in the stock dams. I just loved it. I’ve always been grateful to my father for bringing my brother and me up that way.”
Even with the changing landscape, Widman says, “South Dakota remains one of the nation’s wildlife paradises.”
As he’s matured, “like most sportsmen, I realize what this all means – the preservation of our hunting rights and keeping our grasslands and wetlands.” But he knows that he has an uphill battle with one of the federation’s most important allies, the farmers and ranchers of South Dakota.
“Nowadays,” Widman says, “if farmers want to be involved in conservation, they have to do it out of the goodness of their heart, because commodity prices are so high and the dollar factor is so overwhelming. The grasslands are being plowed up, and the wetlands are being drained.
“That not only hurts wildlife, but this year it kind of wound up hurting farmers and ranchers, too – with the drought, they didn’t have the grasslands for feed.”
Widman and his associates realize that to achieve their goals, they’ve got to come up with a fairer tax treatment for landowners who employ conservation methods. They’re currently working with the Legislature to make it economically worthwhile for the ag community to preserve more land – grasslands and potholes alike.
“We need them,” Widman says simply. “Without farmers, our wildlife goes away. We’re trying to work with them to make sure they understand you don’t have to plow all the grasslands up, or like Minnesota and Iowa, plow from fenceline to fenceline.”
On a national level, the South Dakota Wildlife Federation is lobbying for conservation requirements with crop insurance legislation. Says the new SDWF leader: “Taxpayers pick up 80 percent of that cost, and we should tie that support to farming practices that conserve the land. It just makes sense.”
Widman and his colleagues also want the state to acquire more land for hunting and game production.
“We have willing sellers out there, but right now the governor’s moratorium on the GF&P buying more public land is hurting sportsmen. We don’t have near enough public land, and that, actually, is causing us to lose future generations – kids who will never be able to experience the outdoors.”
And that brings Widman to his most important mission as head of the conservation group: to get more citizens involved.
“One of our new initiatives is the ‘Just One’ program. If each of our members asked just one of their hunting and fishing buddies to join, we could double our membership within a year. And if we do that every year, we’ll get up to that 30,000, 50,000 range within a few years. Membership with any organization is strength – there’s strength in their numbers and strength in their voices.”
To accomplish that, he’s calling on all sportsmen’s groups – “the ducks, elks, pheasants, whitetails, turkeys, NRA” – to become members of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation as well.
“They’re awesome groups that help create habitat for wildlife and get the education out there for our youth. We support them – Brookings Wildlife Federation donates money to all of them, and our members are members of those groups. We hope those people become members of the Brookings and South Dakota wildlife federations.
“We’re the only group that protects our hunting and fishing rights out in Pierre. The goal is, anybody who loves the outdoors, who loves to hunt and fish, they need to be a member of BWF-SDWF. Don’t let a few sportsmen carry the burden for all the rest.”
Widman says heading an organization like the South Dakota Wildlife Federation will no doubt take a toll on his free time, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make:
“I do have a passion for this. I want to make sure that our grandkids can go out and see the wildlife, enjoy hunting or fishing, or just watch the wildlife … that they’ll be able to do that 20, 30, 40 years from now.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.