Criticism mounts against federal warden
By Lee Harstad
Capital Journal Staff
PIERRE - A top state official is asking that a federal game warden be
relieved of his duties in the state.
The State of South Dakota's Chief of Staff Rob Skjonsberg ordered the
state Game, Fish & Parks Department to stand down, or not work with,
Robert Prieksat, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement
agent stationed in Pierre.
This move stems from complaints that Prieksat is going beyond his
boundaries as an officer. Skjonsberg said he has gone too far and is
doing more harm than good.
"Our conservation officers have a stand-down order and we will not participate with that federal agent," Skjonsberg said. "If there is some type of situation that absolutely warrants our participation with him in the fiel
d, the expectation is that Game, Fish & Parks secretary Vonk will have to approve each and every instance."
Prieksat was unaware of the stand-down order on Monday when contacted by The Capital Journal and further contact attempts were not returned Tuesday.
Skjonsberg ordered the stand-down after receiving numerous complaints
about Prieksat from area sportsmen. He said long-standing complaints
center around Prieksat's tact while working and checking sportsmen in
the field. Last week, concerned sportsmen met informally to discuss
ways to better the situation. While there are a number of upset
sportsmen in the area, many are scared to tell their stories in fear
of the repercussions.
One local sportsman and guide, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because he believes he would be singled out in the fields,
said the agent "treats you like a criminal, bullies you around, and
makes you feel like a criminal. I shouldn't be scared to death when
this guy pulls up."
This sportsman talked of how the agent would watch while he was goose hunting, and once the geese started to come into the decoys, he would drive in to the field, scaring away the geese, and check for any violations.
The sportsman also talked of the warden's demeanor, particularly when it comes to writing tickets, saying he was told it is not the agent's job to educate hunters but to write tickets, and cited examples of how tickets we
re written on hearsay.
Alex Falk, a landowner near Joe Creek, has had multiple dealings with Prieksat.
"When he interacts with hunters, he immediately takes the stance that they must be doing something to break the law. He takes a very adversarial stance when interacting with anyone, landowners or sportsmen," Falk said. "H
e has the power of judge, jury and executioner, because he carries a badge, gun and ticket book, and he has the U.S. Attorney's ear. He isn't able to accurately interpret the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations and
is very closed-minded."
Skjonsberg has taken an interest in the situation because of the number of complaints he's received. "I have heard nothing but controversy and complaints surrounding this particular agent. And I'm tired of it," Skjonsberg
said. "It seems he has no ability to use any sort of discretion, and there needs to be. I'm all for catching the bad guys. I'm a sportsman and I don't hunt with poachers, and if I were approached in the field or on the w
ater with the same demeanor I've been hearing about, I would be complaining as well."
Sen. Bob Gray, R-Pierre, said that based on the stories and circumstance, the stand-down order was the right move to make.
"One concerning thing is that we need law enforcement - whether it's a police officer or a conservation officer - to use some discretion in going after real concerns."
Skjonsberg is in his fifth year as Gov. Mike Rounds' chief of staff and believes Prieksat's actions are working against what state Game, Fish & Parks conservation officers have been doing in terms of public relations.
"The vast majority of hunters and anglers are abiding by the law, but he apparently doesn't see it that way and seemingly offends virtually everyone he encounters. This is not a reflection of what our state conservation o
fficers are doing. My problem is that people do not differentiate between the two organizations," Skjonsberg said. "If he wants to create himself an island because of the way he works, he can be an island unto himself - a
ll by himself. The last thing we want is to scare people away from outdoor activities."
In terms of what the next step will be, Gray said, "Perhaps the easiest thing would be for the public to send a message to this officer, saying that while we expect him to enforce our game and fish laws, we also expect hi
m to use some discretion. Beyond that, I don't know what the answer is but we can send a clear message as to what we expect of our local officers."
Skjonsberg said there are probably just two things that could happen.
"A lot of people won't accept anything besides reassignment. In lieu
of that, there needs to be a pretty extreme about-face in regards to
how he goes about doing his job. And based on what I know, I
seriously doubt that's possible," he said. "Based on the complaints I
have received, we have legitimate reason to go to our congressional
delegation and to his supervisor. I'm not sure what other options
there are, but things just can't continue like they are today. If I
can't influence some kind of change in behavior or geography - he
better get used to working by himself."