Surprising changes coming for Maine’s turkey hunt

The Maine ‘s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee did some good work this year for the sportsmen of this state, acting on over 100 bills, many dealing with big game animals deer, moose, bear, and turkeys. While Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife got no new money in the next biennial budget, and most of those 100 bills were defeated, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee showed surprising independence in questioning the department’s position on the issues and choosing – at times – to ignore the agency’s advice.

Perhaps the most surprising example of this came on turkeys. A flood of turkey bills were submitted, including one sponsored at my request by Senator Tom Saviello, calling for a variety of actions to recruit more turkey hunters and increase the turkey harvest. Three legislators who have suffered losses on their farms because of turkeys, spoke forcefully for their own bills: Representatives Jeff Timberlake, Russell Black, and Craig Hickman.

But I had little hope that much would be done because the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed all of the proposals. The agency even whipped up a one-day “task force” and issued a report indicating the group only supported an extension of the October turkey hunt to four weeks.

But DIF&W’s special projects director Judy Camuso delivered a big surprise at the committee’s work session on the turkey bills, informing the committee that the department had decided to offer a whole package of ideas, all of which were enthusiastically embraced by the committee. “This is a bold play. I like the effort that’s gone into this,” Senator Anne Haskell told Camuso.

The committee unanimously endorsed all of the department’s suggestions and added one more of its own. They reduced the turkey hunting permit to $20 for both residents and nonresidents, with no additional fee for a second tom in the spring, expanded the fall season to the entire month of October and added a second turkey of either sex to the fall season, reduced the tagging fee from $5 to $2 for each turkey (with all of the fee going to the tagging agent), extended the spring season to all-day (1/2 hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset) and authorized all-day hunting for youth day.

Although DIF&W recommended all-day hunting only in the final two weeks of the spring season, many committee members, including Representative Paul Davis and the two committee chairs, Senator David Dutremble and Representative Mike Shaw, strongly supported all-day hunting throughout the spring season. And that’s what the committee did. But to pick up the vote of Rep. Ellie Espling and get a unanimous vote on the bill, the committee sunsetted all-day hunting in the spring after 2016, meaning the legislature will have to reaffirm it if it is to continue in 2017.

All of these changes were inserted in a bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Marks that originally called for an extension of youth day to a full week. In addition to these changes, the department said it would take other changes to rule-making that essentially will open up the entire state to turkey hunting.

Representatives Steve Wood and Tim Marks felt that the fee was still too high – as did those legislators who sponsored bills to encourage more sportsmen to hunt turkeys. I told the committee that the changes they offered will give those of us who hunt turkeys now a lot more opportunity, but won’t attract a lot more turkey hunters. That will only happen when the fee disappears.

The reduction in fees will cost DIF&W almost $100,000, and the fiscal note attached to the bill, requiring this money to be added to the budget, was the final hurdle. But DIF&W, as final action was being taken on all bills requiring funding, agreed to absorb the cost, negating any need for more funding to be appropriated. And the bill was quickly enacted after that, but not before a final twist.

A final amendment delayed all of the changes until 2014, so the expansion of the fall season will not occur this year. A missed opportunity, for sure.

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.