SAM Sportsman’s Congress Attracts Big Crowd

The 18th SAM Sportsman’s Congress drew a full house to the organization’s Augusta headquarters this morning. More than two dozen legislators joined outdoor leaders from throughout the state and staff members of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for a day-long discussion of the key issues and programs that will dominate the outdoor agenda in 2013.

Maine’s Secretary of State, Matt Dunlap, a member of SAM’s Board of Directors, served as moderator for of the Congress.

It was a good chance for me to get to know a few new legislators who will serve on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. I was particularly pleased to be able to introduce Rep. Mike Shaw, the IFW Committee’s House Chair, to the Goodman family from Patton. The Goodmans launched the extraordinarily successful Maine bear cam in 2011, but have been unable to find funding to continue the project. Shaw indicated he would make funding for the bear cam a high priority.

Talking Deer

Best Quote: “There aren’t any deer. There aren’t any hunters. Times are tough.” -  Don Kleiner, executive director and lobbyist for the Maine Professional Guides Association.

DIF&W’s John Pratte reported on the Maine Game Plan for Deer and made several announcements: DIF&W has created a newly structured support team in the fish and wildlife divisions support team, is hiring a deer biologist, and is revamping its website that will be ready this winter with more info – particularly about deer. He covered a lot of topics in a short time, ranging from DIF&W’s deer population surveys to habitat plans created for small landowners with a special federal grant.

Lee Kantar contrasted Don Kleiner’s remarks with a positive report on the 2012 deer harvest, up slightly from 2011. But to me, the two men were talking about two different deer herds. Kleiner is focused on the hunting industry, centered in the northern half of the state, while Kantar’s positive numbers were generated in the central and southern half of the state.

Kantar said the moose harvest was also up this year, and eleven moose over 1000 pounds were taken, one with a rack that topped 60 points.

Gerry Lavigne, retired DIF&W deer biologist and now a SAM Board member, followed Kantar, praising him for his work, while saying he thinks DIF&W is wise to divide Kantar’s job in order to have one lead moose biologist and one lead deer biologist. Kantar does both jobs right now.

Lavigne outlined SAM’s Deer Management Network, “a way for us to partner with various entities to increase and improve the deer herd and improve the outdoor economy.” He spoke about the various components of the program, from predation control to deer feeding. Gerry said a top priority is to ”foster coyote hunting. It’s very challenging and very enjoyable.”

First Wind

Neil Kiley of First Wind reported on several interesting initiatives his company has taken to aid deer and other wildlife species. First Wind’s five operating and planned projects are located in rural communities, and the company has found that the most significant concern in those communities is the deer herd.

“We favor the creation of project funds,” said Kiley, explaining that First Wind likes to create special funds that local people can access for conservation and economic development projects. “We’ve stepped up on deer,” he said, announcing a $300,000 fund focused on helping professional guides and the deer herd in one area of the state. I’ll be reporting on this initiative in more detail sometime soon.

Don Kleiner

“Fish and Wildlife conservation in this state is funded exclusively by your cash,” Don Kleiner told sportsmen in the audience.  He noted the importance of nonresident sportsmen to this effort, and said their diminished numbers has been troubling.

“People are now traveling to Iowa, Missouri, pick a state,” he said of both resident and nonresident deer hunters. He provided startling numbers of the financial losses by just two of the state’s deer guiding businesses. “I know we’re moving. We’re not moving fast enough,” he said. “And time is growing short,” for lodges and guides that are under terrific financial pressure.

Another Great Quote

Question from Gerry Lavigne: “In the old days, if a doe, fawn, and buck stood in a field, which one got shot?”

Answer from the audience: “All three!”

More on Deer

Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau spoke about the problems farmers have with deer and turkeys. He said farmers did not want any tougher laws that would limit their ability to reduce deer and turkey populations on their farms.

I offered a report on my 2011 research on deer depredation permits issued to farmers. Here’s my conclusion, from a November 29, 2011 Outdoor News Blog post: The system governing the killing of deer and other animals that are damaging property or crops is a mess, sloppily managed, and lacking many of the required reports.

I am now researching the 2012 permits and harvest reports at DIF&W and will be writing a new report sometime soon on this hot topic.

Gun Ranges

Judy Camuso, DIF&W’s very capable Special Projects Coordinator, who was  promoted in 2012  to this position from her southern Maine wildlife biologists job, reported on the agency’s $750,000 project to improve gun ranges throughout the state. These special federal monies were generated by the excise tax on firearms sales.

Judy said many clubs with ranges are struggling with a variety of problems including sound and safety. DIF&W is gathering applications from those clubs for grants to help address those problems.

Judy reported that many club ranges are not open to the public, forcing shooters into gravel pits and other places to do their shooting or to sight in their guns. She hopes to use the grants to make some of these ranges more accessible to the public. Small grants will be available to clubs that want to increase public participation at their shooting ranges.

A Steering Committee has been organized to oversee the program and an independent contractor will be retained to direct the program and work with the Steering Committee. The position is currently being advertised, with applications due by January 21. “We hope to have someone on board in February,” she said.

Commissioner Woodcock

Chandler Woodcock, DIF&W Commissioner, was the luncheon speaker. He introduced Crystal Theriault as his new assistant, a role that Andrea Erskine has done very capably for the last five commissioners. Woodcock praised Erskine and the entire room gave her a standing ovation.

Although it sounded like Andrea was retiring, what she is really doing is shedding herself from her old job, and finally getting a chance perform her new job as Deputy Commissioner. Since she took on that position two years ago, Andrea has been doing both her old job and her new job.

Theriault’s will oversee the rule-making and law-making processes, although Erskine will work with her throughout the 2013 legislative session.

Woodcock reported on a number of DIF&W initiatives, from updating the agency’s website and licensing system, to rebuilding the deer herd. Among other things, he expressed confidence in Lee Kantar’s new moose population estimate of 75,000 moose, something I appreciated because it sets the stage for the moose bill I have submitted to the legislature.

He said the issue he hears about the most is turkeys. “We’re talking turkey at the department, and I assure you changes will be made,” he said, reacting to many legislative bills already proposed to expand turkey hunting opportunities. I’ve proposed one of those bills.

The Commissioner credited Brad Allen, DIF&W’s lead bird biologist, with his long-standing work on grouse habitat, leading to what the Commissioner labeled, “the best grouse season ever” in 2012.

“I don’t hunt grouse,” he said. “I hunt partridge – that I often shoot on the ground.”

He predicted a “very challenging budget process,” this year, without sharing any insights into the impacts that the state’s ongoing budget process might have on his agency.

Fisheries

The early afternoon was turned over to fisheries, with a panel of people from SAM and DIF&W who reported on a wide variety of programs and initiatives, from Hooked-on-Fishing to protection of brook trout.

A half hour of presentations on expected legislative bills went by quickly, and then the centerpiece of the afternoon kicked off: a panel discussion of gun control. Panelists were Senator Anne Haskell, former Senator Bill Diamond, former Attorney General Bill Schneider, Education Commissioner Steve Bowen, and SAM Board member Jim Hilly. Don Kleiner moderated the interesting discussion.

Haskell talked about the moose she shot this year, adding a light touch to the serious and difficult issues of gun control. Her previous experience on the legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee will come in handy this session as this complex gun issues come to the forefront.

This was a free-wheeling debate with lots of statements and questions from the audience. It was a good example of just how difficult this debate is going to be, and how much all of us have to learn if we are to create an effective response to the New Town tragedy.

The over-riding advice from panelists was to “take a deep breath,” and take the necessary time to deal with what is definitely a very complex issue.

During the day, I took the chance to pull people aside, into another room, to catch up on things and advance some of the issues and projects I’m working on. It was a very productive day for me and most people seemed pleased with the day’s discussions as the 18th Congress wrapped up at 3 pm. I was especially impressed with the number of legislators who not only attended, but also stayed all day.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.