While we were able to – again – defend Maine’s bear hunting industry, other types of hunting continue to decline, and we have no strategy to regain the state’s reputation for quality hunts that once attracted lots of nonresidents. Most Mainers don’t hire guides to hunt, so guides and sporting camps have always depended on nonresidents to sustain their businesses.
The decline in deer and moose populations has been devastating for businesses that depend on those game animals to bring hunters into their regions to hunt.
The challenge of reversing a 60 percent decline in Maine’s nonresident hunters was tossed to a Task Force in 2011 by the legislature. That Task Force issued its report with a list of thoughtful recommendations on January 23, 2013, after which the report was promptly shelved.
Tenley Bennett, an Aroostook County member of the Non-Resident Hunter Task Force, presented the group’s report. Tenley, who manages a sporting camp with her husband Wayne, said, “It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to operate traditional sporting camps and lodges as a primary means of income.”
“We recognize non-resident hunters are a fine group and Maine has enormous potential to capture more of that market by simply changing licensing requirements and marketing better our best hunting opportunities. We also realize a collaborative approach to marketing will provide the greatest opportunity for success in increasing non-resident hunting license sales.” Tenley said.
DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock noted that some of the recommendations are controversial and have been considered – and rejected – in the past by the legislature. These include allowing nonresidents to hunt on the first day of the firearms season on deer.
But nobody actually went through the Task Force’s report or its list of recommendations when the report was presented to the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee – a pretty good signal where these were headed – to the shelf, as quickly as possible.
Let me be clear. The recommendations are excellent and very necessary if we are to reverse the decline in nonresident hunters. The Task Force worked hard and did a superb job. But that doesn’t mean the recommendations will ever be implemented.
Rep. Mike Shaw asked about Sunday hunting, noting that the lack of Sunday hunting opportunities makes it difficult for Maine to compete with other states that do offer Sunday hunting, including New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. The Task Force discussed Sunday hunting – a lot – and half of the public comments it received said that Sunday hunting was the most effective thing Maine could do to attract more nonresident hunters. But the group chose not to make that a recommendation, because it’s simply unrealistic, politically.
Senator John Patrick noted that resident hunters are not happy with their deer hunting or their “high fees,” but praised the Task Force for offering recommendations directed at nonresident hunters.
Steve Wilcox from Witopitlock, a member of the Nonresident Task Force, offered gripping testimony. “This task force has left me hopeful and a bit bitter,” said Steve. “I have been a guide for 17 years… I know where my nonresident hunters have gone: John and Andy go to Ohio, Mark and his group go to New York, Steve goes to South Carolina. And the list goes on.”
Expressing his view that Maine will never replace nonresident deer hunters with nonresidents who come here seeking other game, Steve pleaded, “Let’s deal with the problem head on, like it has not been done in the past 30 years… the biggest impact we can make to increase our hunter numbers is to increase our deer hunters.”
“I feel – and many others like me – that the IF&W and the Maine government has failed us,” he said sadly, focusing on all of the known issues from coyote predation to protection of deer yards.
Carolanne Ouelette, Tourism Office Director, who cochaired the Nonresident Task Force with my sister Edie Smith (at the time the Director of DIF&W’s Information and Education Division), emphasized the importance of market research, noting that all of her programs are research based. “We really need the research to support anything going forward,” she told the committee.
The top five Task Force recommendations were summarized for the legislature.
1) MDIFW must work collaboratively with the Office of Tourism to develop a marketing plan promoting Maine as a destination for Nonresident hunters; and in all areas of outdoor recreation.
2) Funding should be allocated to survey current and recently lapsed nonresident hunters, using a qualified market research firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues; to find out what these customers want, why they have lapsed, and what barriers there are for travel to Maine as a hunting destination.
A survey was commissioned in 2013 and I have inquired about the results. But I haven’t gotten the results yet. If I ever do get them, I will share them here.
3) Based on the data generated from this market research, marketing tools, strategies and training must be provided to Maine’s hunting industry partners, including guides, outfitters, sporting camps, B&Bs, and other state agencies such as Office of Tourism and Department of Conservation, to multiply the effect of the marketing plan.
4) New hunting licenses, “repackaged” licenses, or licenses that feature new privileges or opportunities appear to be one of the greatest factors with the potential to positively affect any kind of license sales. The Legislature and MDIFW must take a closer look at ways to accomplish and implement this initiative in a timely manner.
5) Maine must do more to promote its lands open to hunting statewide, and the ease of access to them. Paper collateral such as maps and brochures, and online information that can be shared by state agency and hunting partners’ websites, must by developed, distributed and kept current.
Here are my own thoughts.
Start treating nonresident hunters as customers, not cash cows. Every time DIF&W needed money, the legislature socked it to nonresidents. “They don’t vote,” one Senator told me a few years ago. Alas, he was wrong. They’ve voted with their feet. And every Maine business that depended on them has suffered.
Even in 2011, when the legislature enacted significant changes in the moose lottery to benefit residents, they did not make the same changes for nonresident applicants. Who cares about them?!
Focus the effort on nonresidents who own property here and have family here. Those will be the easiest to attract, and if they’re happy, they’ll expand their hunting experiences in Maine to include their friends from away. That’s the way it used to work.
Use the same techniques that others in the tourist business use to attract customers, especially social media and video. They work!
And by the way, these same techniques and strategies should be applied to our sagging recreational fishing industry.