When I was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives, I thought the legislative process would be “one thing after another.” I quickly discovered it’s “the same thing over and over.” Fast forward to today. Now in my sixth term, I am House Chair of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, and I now know how Bill Murray felt in the film “Groundhog Day.”
The legislature is currently halfway through the 2017 session, and the IFW Committee is midway through its workload. The session started with 81 bills slated for hearing by the committee. Most looked very, very familiar. Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and it boasts abundant wildlife. Mainers treasure this abundance and want to maintain it. On the other hand, many Mainers also want to put a few critters in the freezer. As a result, there are a handful of perennial issues for lawmakers. Here they are:
Why does everyone get to hunt a moose except me? There aren’t nearly enough moose permits to go around, so the chance to hunt one is determined by a lottery where everyone gets an equal chance. Naturally, nobody wants an equal chance. Everybody wants improved odds. So Maine has developed a complex system that allocates points for previous disappointments, allows sub-permittees to hunt on the same permit, and sets aside a certain number of permits for special classes, such as disabled veterans and sporting camps. Out-of-state hunters can pay big bucks to get multiple chances. A few permits are simply auctioned off to the highest bidder. Every session, there are numerous bills to change the allocation formula. Gaming the system has become its own sport.
Got your deer yet? Everyone wants that trophy buck. But bucks don’t grow to be trophy-sized by being stupid. When autumn passes without venison in the freezer, thoughts turn to other deer. A limited number of any-deer permits are allocated by the department every year, and the urge to settle for a doe stirs up nearly as much desire to game the system as the moose lottery does. The allocation lottery is so complicated, it takes place in four stages. We dole out permits first to special license holders, then to qualified landowners, then to junior hunters, and finally to all remaining hunters. If not all available permits are distributed in certain Wildlife Management Districts, the extras are handed out as bonus permits. The percentage of permits distributed within each of these groups is always subject to tinkering by legislators.
Why can’t I hunt on Sunday? On February 28, 1883, Maine prohibited Sunday hunting. For 134 years, hunters have been trying to get that day back. The case for doing so is strong. Only four states have a complete ban. Seasons are short, and the loss of a weekend day hurts Maine’s guides and lodges. It puts Maine at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states that allow Sunday hunting. It leaves many working people with only one day in the woods.
Every year, there are multiple bills designed to chip away at the ban. Lawmakers propose limited hunts, perhaps targeting specific species or in certain areas. Many recommend Sunday hunting only on one’s own property. One bill this year would open up Sunday hunting solely to shotguns. But the Sunday prohibition is so ingrained in Maine’s psyche that these efforts always fail. Most landowners and even many sportsmen oppose the slightest erosion of the ban.
Why won’t they leave us alone? In the last dozen years, Maine has endured two citizens’ initiatives to restrict bear hunting, plus one referendum to tighten background checks on firearms. After each battle, the next legislative session fills with bills to curtail citizen-sponsored legislation. There are bills to change the Maine Constitution, establishing a right to hunt and fish. Some bills would change the initiative process to exempt hunting. A few would change how petition signatures are gathered. It all amounts to the same thing. Hunters want to be left alone.
Why don’t you let me run the department? The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is in charge of snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle and boating safety. Perhaps 20% of the bills each year seek to change these laws. But the biggest category of bills in a session is directed at how the department manages wildlife resources. Everybody likes to second-guess the department on how, when, and where to hunt and fish. It almost goes without saying: Maine sportsmen and women have an opinion about everything.