Turkey hunt expansion didn’t come easily

Turkey hunt expansion didn’t come easily

This is a great lesson in how a legislative bill becomes a law. It’s nothing like they tell you in the brochure. When Maine turkey hunters take the field on Thursday for their expanded fall hunt, few will know how they got this new opportunity.

Here’s the story. During my 18 years as executive director and lobbyist for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I learned that Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife manages fish and game very conservatively. While SAM often pushed for more opportunities, and was pleased to win things like fall fishing and more moose permits, I also appreciated the careful and cautious approach taken by DIF&W’s professional staff.

It was clear to me that change, especially aggressive expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities, has to start outside of the agency, from groups like SAM.

This year, while at the legislature to report on what is happening (or not happening) there in my Outdoor News blogs, I found it hard to just sit there and write. So I tossed a half dozen of my own bills into the hopper, with sponsorship and help from legislators. In several of the bills, I tried to give legislators a chance to deal with an issue comprehensively, something that rarely happens.

When I laid out my ambitious turkey bill to Senator Tom Saviello, at a breakfast meeting at the Olde Post Office Café in Mount Vernon, he loved it, and quickly agreed to sponsor the bill. The bill called for elimination of the turkey hunting fee, online and phone registration of turkeys, spring and fall all-day hunting, and expansion of the fall season to the entire month of October with a two bird either sex bag limit.

Three legislators who have suffered losses on their farms because of turkeys also sponsored bills calling for longer seasons and higher bag limits. At the public hearing on the turkey bills, Representatives Jeff Timberlake, Russell Black, and Craig Hickman spoke forcefully. Throughout the process, Senator Saviello and these three Representatives worked hard, as I did, to achieve an expanded hunt.

Even with all of that support, I had little hope that much would be done because DIF&W opposed all of the bills. The agency even whipped up a one-day “task force” that included groups like SAM and the Maine Farm Bureau, and issued a report indicating the group only supported an expansion of the October turkey hunt to four weeks.

But DIF&W’s special projects director Judy Camuso, at the final work session on the bills, delivered a big surprise, informing the F&W Committee that the department had decided to support many of the proposals, all of which were then enthusiastically embraced by the committee. Truly, I was astonished.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that DIF&W’s top bird biologist, Brad Allen, had a lot to do with this. Over the years I came to admire Brad as one of the most thoughtful wildlife biologists, and to appreciate his openness in discussing any and all ideas. I had a pretty good idea going into this session what Brad could support and what he’d oppose.

The final bill 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 bag limit, 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 supported all-day hunting only in the final two weeks of the spring season, many committee members strongly supported all-day hunting for the entire spring season. And that’s what the committee supported. But to pick up the vote of Rep. Ellie Espling and get a unanimous vote on the bill, the committee sunsetted all-day spring hunting after 2016, meaning the legislature or department 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.

Lest you think this was the end of the process, there was a long road still ahead. First, the Appropriations Committee had to fund it. DIF&W will lose almost $100,000 from the fee reductions. But the agency stepped up and informed the committee that it could absorb this loss, negating any need for more funding to be appropriated. That helped drive the bill quickly through the House and Senate and onto the Governor’s desk where it was signed into law.

A great ending, wouldn’t you say? Except, this is not the end of the story. In order to give DIF&W flexibility in changing these provisions in the future, the legislature directed the agency to adopt the changes in rules, and did not put them in law. If you don’t know, the agency’s rule-making process is long and complex.

Worried that they wouldn’t be able to get through that process and adopt the changes in time for the 2013 fall turkey hunting season, DIF&W had asked the legislature to add to the final bill a delay in its implementation to 2014. A bit frustrated, I dropped out of the process at that point, convinced that we’d have to wait until next year for the expanded fall hunting opportunities.

So I was amazed when, a week ago, a press release from DIF&W arrived in my email announcing that the fall season would begin on October 3, run for a month, and include a two bird bag limit. Good for DIF&W! They cut it close, with the Advisory Council and Commissioner officially adopting the new rules on September 19. But they got it done.

On Thursday afternoon, I’ll be out with Dad, hoping to see him get a turkey (or two), with an understanding of both how hard it was to win this new opportunity, and an appreciation for all those who contributed to its achievement. Thanks to all!

More info on the fall season is available on DIF&W’s website.

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.