Gender categories for 4-H rodeo events in South Dakota won’t be disappearing this year.

In an effort to meet Title IX requirements as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, South Dakota State University Extension had asked for a change in event category labels. Instead of listing events as girls and boys, four divisions were going to be used, said John Keimig, SDSU youth safety field specialist.

But that change has now been put on hold pending a federal review by the U.S. Department of Education.

Title IX prohibits segregated events based on sex, and the USDA specifically prohibits gender segregation within 4-H activities.

Keimig, who is also liaison to South Dakota 4-H Rodeo, said Title IX compliance is not a new conversation. Creating the divisions was expected to bring the program into compliance with current USDA requirements. As a USDA program, 4-H takes its direction from the agency, which until last year had been using a 1979 interpretation of the Title IX ruling.

South Dakota 4-H Rodeo media contact Casey Cowan said that aside from having the 4-H name attached to the program and receiving some technical assistance from SDSU Extension, 4-H rodeo is independently funded.

According to state 4-H rules and regulations, rodeo events are set up with specific events designated for girls and boys. The same number of events are available for each gender. There are four events for junior 4-H members 8 to 13 years old, and five each for senior 4-H’ers 14 to 18. While there is some overlap in junior events, senior events are different. Girls compete in barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying, breakaway roping and ribbon roping, during which a calf is roped and a ribbon is removed from the ear. Senior boys compete in bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and bull riding.

Keimig said that according to the USDA, there can only be gender segregation in programs for contact sports like wrestling, or if team selection is based on an unfair physical advantage and there’s a team for each gender.

But Cowan, who participated in 4-H rodeo as a youth and is a former president of South Dakota 4-H Rodeo, said the state’s youth program is patterned after collegiate rodeo programs that also have events separated by gender.

According to the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, men’s events are saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and team roping. Women’s events are barrel racing, goat tying, breakaway roping and team roping.

Cowan said changing the 4-H program wouldn’t make sense since it currently mirrors collegiate programs.

The USDA was asked to take a closer look at its Title IX ruling by Congresswoman Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in November. She asked for a review of the USDA opinion that gender-separated events are a Title IX violation.

“Rodeo is a sport that contains diverse contests. The outcomes of these contests are heavily dependent both on the skill of the contestant and in many instances, the inherent differences between the sexes,” Noem wrote in her letter.

The differences between male and female competitors can create unfair advantages, so Noem asked for a Title IX exception for the rodeo program.

Perdue responded this week, indicating that the USDA will be seeking input from the U.S. Department of Education, which is now reviewing some of its Title IX regulations.

Perdue said South Dakota 4-H Rodeo can continue unchanged while the review is conducted.

Keimig said the program is one of just two in the country. The other is in New Mexico where there’s no gender distinction.

According to the New Mexico 4-H Rodeo rulebook, events are simply listed for novice, junior and senior participants. But, Cowan said, New Mexico’s program only has 125 contestants at most, while South Dakota’s had 1,219 in 2017.

Keimig and Cowan said exceptions have been made to the existing gender-separation rules. Girls have been allowed to sign up for boys events, and vice versa. But, Cowan said, those exceptions have been rare.

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