If Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received new revenue, how do you think it should be spent? That was the assignment that the legislature’s Appropriations Committee gave to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee last week. The request was focused on the possibility of giving DIF&W some tax revenue, something we’ve been trying to achieve for more than 20 years, without much luck.
Some members of the Appropriations Committee also asked me to submit suggestions. The rest of this column gives you the new initiatives I’ve suggested to the committee. I am also encouraging you to join in this important discussion by emailing me your suggestions (email@example.com), or completing the survey question I have posted in the Sportsmen Say Survey section of my website (georgesmithmaine.com). In the survey, I am looking for your most important suggestion. Now, here are mine!
March 31 Memo to the Appropriations Committee
Here are a few key initiatives that are needed, and that could be launched if you provide the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with public support in the form of tax revenue, and/or dip into the agency’s surplus. If you need more ideas, let me know! While I do not have the information needed to estimate costs, I assume that if you embrace any of these ideas, DIF&W could provide you with that information.
Moose Research: When I proposed, in 2012, to gradually increase the moose harvest to 10 percent – the percentage of deer we harvested last year – DIF&W’s moose biologist, Lee Kantar – convinced the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee to oppose the bill because, in Lee’s words, “The big unknown is mortality and the causes of mortality. So we have to be cautious in the number of permits we issue.” We are unable to maximize moose permits and give our hunting industry a needed boost, because of what we don’t know about moose mortality. This is just unacceptable. Three weeks ago, DIF&W’s Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine told the IFW Committee that her agency hoped to expand their moose mortality research to a second study area, and would be able to have a budget figure for that in a week’s time. This must be added to the budget.
Marketing: When Bill Pierce left his position at DIF&W as marketing director many years ago, his position was abolished along with most of the budget for marketing of hunting and fishing. Ten years ago the agency had a marketing budget of over $100,000. Today it is a small fraction of that. We desperately need to begin marketing hunting and fishing again, to grow the agency’s customer base and boost our ailing outdoor industry. The Office of Tourism has some responsibility here but only for nonresident first time visitors. The agency needs to improve its sales to lapsed license holders in and out of state and improve its efforts to attract new anglers and hunters from around the country.
Landowner Relations: Nothing is more important for all of us who recreate on private land (and that really is all of us), than good landowner relations. Groups representing sportsmen and private landowners have worked, largely unsuccessfully, for more than 10 years to establish a vigorous landowner relations program, which has bounced between DIF&W and the Bureau of Parks and Lands. I have proposed a bill, sponsored by Representative Ellie Espling, that would create a robust landowner relations program at DIF&W, directed by a commission representing landowners and outdoor recreationists. The program will need staffing and other funding support.
Licensing: Representative Patrick Corey’s suggestion that an infusion of tax revenue should be used to lower the cost of licenses and permits is a good one. Essentially, our high fees are paying for services that the general public gets for free. I would take Rep. Corey’s suggestion one step further, initiating a range of special deals to encourage participation in hunting and fishing, and to entice nonresidents in our direction. For example, it would be a huge boost to Maine guides if DIF&W charged no fees to customers who hunt or fish with a Maine guide. As I did last legislative session, I am proposing the creation of a Comprehensive Hunting License in a bill sponsored by Representative Mike Shaw. This would eliminate about 60 licenses and permits, and offer a single hunting license for all hunting opportunities. It would also save DIF&W a lot of money in the MOSES system. But last session the bill failed because, to assure that the agency receives the same amount of revenue, more than half of our hunters would have paid more than they do today. We could easily enact the single hunting license, with a lower fee, to match the single fishing license, if DIF&W received the tax revenue it should be receiving.
Turkey Hunting: Maine has lost about one third of its turkey hunters over the last nine years, even as the population of turkeys has expanded statewide. Over the years I asked a lot of hunters why they don’t hunt turkeys and almost always the answer was: it’s too expensive. Last Thursday the IFW Committee heard a bill, sponsored at my request by Senator Tom Saviello, to eliminate the turkey hunting fee and include turkey hunting in the big and small game licenses. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get this because it would cost the agency some revenue.
Fisheries: I could write a book about the deficiencies in our fisheries research and management programs. Start with hatcheries, where a Commission recommended – 10 years ago – a substantial increase in the number of stocked fish and the construction of a state-of-the-art hatchery, recommendations that have been impossible to implement due to lack of funds. Move on to native brook trout. We have 97 percent of all that are left in this country, and it is a resource that we are obligated to protect and enhance. But there are actually many remote ponds holding native brookies that DIF&W’s biologists have never been able to survey. There is so much we don’t know! And while the Wildlife Division is well organized with lead biologists assigned to specific species (we have a moose biologist, deer biologist, even a turkey biologist), the Fisheries Division relies on its regional fisheries staff for all of these tasks. And the agency’s fisheries data is appallingly poor and riddled with errors. We need significant reorganization, and additional staff, to boost our fisheries program and management.
Water Access: Mainers have no right of access to moving water – our brooks, streams, and rivers. If a landowner owns both sides of a brook, for example, and posts that land, we can’t even stand in the water – or anchor our canoe or boat – and fish. And, surprisingly, we don’t even have public access sites on most of our lakes and ponds. DIF&W’s budget for water access purchases and improvements is very limited. This could stand some improvement!
Wildlife Habitat: DIF&W depends on other programs to purchase critical wildlife habitat, and could do a lot more to be proactive in identifying existing habitat that needs protection. Maine tends to protect lands that are offered up by landowners, rather than going out and identifying the habitat that is most important to purchase or protect.
Deer: Maine has had a lot of deer plans over the last 30 years. In every plan, lack of wintering habitat was cited as the most important issue. And we have done very little to address that critical problem, now cited as the principle reason we lost our deer herd in the North Woods. The Maine Game Plan for Deer, announced by Governor LePage in March of 2011, included this goal: “By December 31, 2013, obtain assurances from cooperating landowners that the remaining 50% of the acreage currently supporting wintering deer in northern, eastern, and western Maine is being cooperatively managed with the Department.” Yet in the four years since the plan was announced, no new cooperative agreements with landowners have been reached. In 2011, Gerry Lavigne, DIF&W’s long-serving deer biologist who was retired and issued his report on behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, noted, ““DIFW should identify additional sources of funding, and/or curtail less urgent programs to focus on deer recovery work. Likewise, personnel need to be added where needed to implement new and ongoing deer recovery work. Some of this additional staffing may be accomplished through re-assignment of personnel from less urgent programs.” We’re still waiting and hoping this could be accomplished.
Public Information and Education: This division at DIF&W has diminished over time to the point that the public receives almost no information and very little education on fisheries and wildlife issues and programs. One example: a popular weekly newsletter was reduced to a monthly newsletter. It is very difficult to find things on the agency’s website, and a lot of important information is not even on the website.
PHOTO: Fox, by Pam Wells