Gobbling up turkey bill at the Maine Legislature

2012 turkey with DadWinning support for a bill at the Maine legislature is a lot like turkey hunting. You’ve got to call them in, convince them you are not dangerous, and get them while they are in close range. We did that with our turkey bill last week, although we didn’t get the biggest gobbler. More like a Jake.

LD 781, An Act to Eliminate Permits for Turkey Hunting and Expand Turkey Hunting, was sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello at my request. This bill was designed to increase the number of turkey hunters by eliminating turkey permits and fees, adding turkeys to the big and small game licenses, and allowing us to register turkeys by phone or on the department’s website. I did toss in one new idea: to require deer registration stations to also register turkeys. Many of them don’t, requiring turkey hunters to drive long distances to register their birds.

At the bill’s hearing, I also suggested that the committee use the bill to eliminate the sunset provision on all-day turkey hunting in the spring. That opportunity was enacted last session, but sunsetted after two years, so it will expire in 2017 without additional legislative action.

I wasn’t surprised when the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed the bill. They don’t want to lose the revenue, and also feel strongly that electronic tagging will reduce compliance with the law requiring turkeys to be registered.

Dave Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, also opposed the bill. “We are not supportive of this concept if it creates a financial hole in the department’s budget,” Dave testified.

But Dave did offer one interesting idea: “a provision that reduces the current four turkey permits per year to 3 (two spring – one fall) all purchased as they are today. The additional permit or 4th permit would be added to the general license, with the department choosing when and where that season would occur.” He suggested a “two week season in the fall where all hunters could take a turkey, just like they do a buck deer and tagged just like a deer.”

Dave said his preference “would be that the new season occurs two weeks prior to Thanksgiving and zones managed much like we do the doe permit system, some zones open for turkey hunting and others closed. If lucky enough, I and my fellow hunters might harvest our family’s Thanksgiving Day turkey.”

Judy Camuso, DIF&W’s Wildlife Division Director, Colonel Joel Wilkinson of the Warden Service, and Bill Swan, Licensing Division Director, all spoke at the work session in opposition to various aspects of my bill. Yes, they ganged up on me! And as usual, it is nearly impossible to enact legislation that the agency opposes.

Judy said that “small Mom and Pop stores” are too busy in the spring to tag turkeys, and DIF&W “doesn’t want to burden the store owners.” But they don’t seem to be concerned that turkey hunters sometimes have to drive 30 or more miles to register a turkey!

I was very pleased when Judy, in response to a question from Rep. Wood, said that, after opposing all-day turkey hunting in the spring when it was up for debate last session, the agency found no problems with it last year and would support it this session.

The Result

The IFW Committee had a lengthy debate in the work session on this bill. Representative Steve Wood led the way, trying to accomplish as much as possible. While he made a great effort to authorize phone and online registration of turkeys, a significant number of committee members – heavily influenced by DIF&W’s strong opposition – forced Steve to give up that provision in order to win a solid committee vote for the amended bill.

And there appeared to be no support for eliminating the turkey permit fee, even though I emphasized that this is the biggest hurdle to attracting more turkey hunters. Maine has lost about one third of its turkey hunters over the last nine years. Last year only about 16,500 hunters purchased a turkey hunting permit, and less than 3,000 of them harvested a turkey.

The final amended bill, which won the support of all committee members except one, does the following:

  • Eliminates the 2017 sunset provision on all-day spring turkey hunting;
  • Adds turkeys to the big game hunting license for a week of turkey hunting in November, just prior to Thanksgiving, with a one bird of either sex limit.

Judy Camuso, immediately after the work session, spoke to me about her concerns with the latter provision, noting that hunters cannot shoot turkeys with a rifle and all hunters in November must wear hunter orange. Those provisions will certainly limit the new November turkey hunting opportunity.

Although my bill didn’t accomplish all of my goals, I learned a long time ago that legislative success generally comes in bits and pieces, and we did advance the ball a bit with this amended bill. And if I am ever able to enact my comprehensive hunting license bill, the turkey permit and fee will be eliminated, offering a great incentive for more hunters to try this exciting sport.

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. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.