There was a lot of talk about “heater hunters” at the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee yesterday. LD 848, An Act to Increase the Safety of Hunting, sponsored by Senator David Burns of Washington County, sparked quite a debate on both sides of the issue.
Actually, we’re all on the same side, but we are looking in different directions. Senator Burns kicked off the debate by noting, “Deer hunting is something I grew up with since I was 7 or 8 years old… hunting is very important to me personally, just as it is important to the rural parts of our state especially.”
His bill would:
- Increase the minimum distance for discharging a firearm to 100 feet from the center of a paved road with a $500 fine for violations;
- Require that a firearm with a rifled barrel be enclosed in a case in or on a motor vehicle during deer season;
- Impose a mandatory $500 penalty for a violation of discharging a firearms or crossbow within 100 yards of a building or residential dwelling.
“I am supporting an increase from 10 feet from the edge of the road to 100 feet from the center of the road, to keep careless hunters from exiting a vehicle, loading a gun and shooting at game, all within such a short duration that accidental discharge can occur or game can be wrongfully identified. This extra distance should cause hunters to take more time and be more deliberate with their activities.
“Requiring hunters to keep a gun in some type of case while a vehicle is in motion should also prevent accidents and make it more difficult for a ‘heater hunter’ to have his weapon loaded while in the vehicle.”
Supporting testimony came from a Washington County House member and from hunter safety instructor Mike Look from East Machias. Mike is a well-known sportsman and the current president of the Downeast Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association.
Mike noted that, “Maine’s hunting culture has changed dramatically since I was a teenager.” He spoke of hunters shooting game from the road and too close to homes, and jumping out of their vehicles for a quick shot at a deer. He said that “the odds of getting caught are extremely slim,” for those who shoot within 10 feet of the road, the current requirement. He also said that having to case your firearm in or on the vehicle “will also give the hunter time to think about what he is doing.”
And he told the story of a major landowner in East Machias who recently received an award from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for allowing hunting on his 35,000 acres, but who had posted his land last fall “because of problems with heater hunters. He was posting his logging operation sites with closed (Monday thru Friday) signs because of men working and trucks coming and going. The heater hunters ignored his signs and drove through anyway. They also drove on his blueberry land and threw trash out on his property.”
Well, I thought to myself, those hunters violated at least two laws and maybe more!
“On a related note,” Mike testified, “the practice of baiting has reached epidemic proportions and the $200 penalty is no deterrent at all.” He asked the committee to increase the penalty for baiting deer, including license revocation.
I was surprised and disappointed that DIF&W supported this bill. In the agency’s testimony, Warden Colonel Joel Wilkinson said, “The Department supports legislation that reinforces ethical and safe hunting practices while balancing ample opportunities to all those who choose to engage in the sport of hunting.”
“Each year the Maine Warden Service deals with a significant complaint load regarding unlawful road hunting activity. Much of this activity occurs within the 100 yards of occupied dwellings…. The bill would certainly reinforce to all hunters that the State does not support this activity.”
The Colonel did express concerns about the enforcement of the requirement that rifles be cased during the firearms season on deer.
I joined Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association and Dave Trahan of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine in outlining the problems with this bill. Don told an amazing story of a time, many years ago, when one of his bird hunting clients accidentally shot him. He still has a couple of those pellets in him. He emphasized that they were both wearing two pieces of orange clothing, and were no more than 10 yards apart. It was quite a story.
I told the committee that this bill severely penalizes and restricts all hunters, most of whom are conscientious and law abiding, to crack down on the few who act badly and, often, illegally. It would have an especially big impact on those hunting moose, grouse, and turkeys.
I also presented the history of the current law, which was amended as one of SAM’s Pickering Commission recommended. At that time it was illegal to walk up the road or to cross the road with a loaded firearm. We changed that, and established that you can’t shoot within 10 feet of the road and you can’t shoot across the road. But today, I can load my rifle in my house, go out and walk the road to my woodlot, and start hunting there. And I feel strongly that I should be allowed to do that.
The committee asked a lot of questions about the proposed increases in fees, and I said I don’t care how much they charge law breakers, but they should not think that increasing fines will decrease violations. Even the $10,000 fine for illegally introducing fish into our waters has not stopped that unfortunate practice. High fines are not a deterrent.
Finally, I noted that many of the actions mentioned in the testimony of the bill’s proponents are already illegal, including having a loaded rifle in your vehicle, and shooting within 100 yards of a house.
I ended my testimony with a story of the first really big buck I ever shot. I was standing in the road, next to a field, waiting for Dad to pick me up to go to a hunters’ breakfast, when the buck stepped out of the alders and angled across the field in my direction. I stepped off the road, put the scope on him, and shot him right between the eyes. If I had been in the alders, 100 yards from the road, and had shot at the buck as he trotted toward the road, it would have been an unsafe shot. I would have been shooting right at the road. But with my back to the road, my shot was perfectly safe.
The story I didn’t tell them happened in the exact same spot. I had just stepped into the road when I looked up and a truly huge buck emerged from those same alders and trotted toward the road. I took three shots at him in the field, missing cleanly on all three. Then he stepped into the road, stopped, and turned toward me. Yes, I thought about shooting! But that would have been wrong.
So I took off running after him. He went away from me up the road, and then crossed into a neighbor’s field on the other side of the road. I actually got close enough to him, in that field, to take another shot. Missed again.