LD-84 Could Be Bad For Turkey Hunters in Maine

Imagine for a moment that whitetail deer were considered to be extinct in Maine at the turn of the century, due to over-harvesting of forests and dramatic changes in farming practices. Moose hunting, of course, would not even be considered. Imagine you grew up with bear and wild turkey as your primary “Big Game” species to hunt. Most locals would have very limited knowledge on how to hunt or manage deer or moose populations.

Now imagine a group of dedicated hunters and conservationists that fought for a whitetail reintroduction program that became so successful that in just a few short years a viable population was established; enough to offer hunters a limited season.

Imagine too, that the population of whitetails grew so rapidly in the next decade or two that they have become a nuisance. Farmers orchardists and small woodlot owners storm the Legislature demanding that whitetail populations be drastically reduced. Transplanted homeowners “from away” that purchased land in Maine to escape their formative years of urban living complain bitterly that the deer are eating their expensive yew trees and decimating their organic vegetable gardens.

Add further that laws would be changed to diminish the whitetail from a “Big Game” species to allow their taking by hunters holding only a “small game” license and bag limits be liberalized and season dates extended to allow for more harvesting?

Fortunately for deer hunters, the shoe is on the other foot, but unfortunately, for wild turkey hunters this scenario may soon become a reality if LD-84 passes as currently presented.

The history of wild turkeys as an indigenous (native) species has been well documented as has the incredible success story of how turkey population in the entire United States was estimated at around 50,000 birds previous to World War II and how wildlife managers aided by concerned and dedicated sportsmen helped trap and relocate wild turkeys into key areas. From a meager beginning of just 31 turkeys trapped in the Adirondacks and released into southwestern Vermont has now spread throughout the Northeast with more than 2 million population estimates. Maine alone began with 17 birds in 1977 and now boats populations of more than 50,000.

I consider myself privileged to have been smack in the middle of those restoration efforts. As a Vermont Game Warden I helped release those 31 seed turkeys and spent most of my free time since then keeping a close eye on flock developments and legislation affecting the species. LD – 84 simply boggles my mind, and let me explain how.

We first need to examine how the sausage making of Legislatures work. House and Senate members are usually retired lawyers, successful businessmen who I feel have more interest in wielding power than to serve the public good. They listen intently to their golf and tennis partners and blindly launch special interest bills long before they begin to research the merits of such legislation.

I’ve dealt with lawmakers in many states and the path to legislation never changes. Take LD-84 which I partially support. My position on fish and wildlife has never changed since my first dealing with Legislative bodies back when I was a teenager. “Species First” is a phrase I coined more than 40 years ago and hold true today. Legislate what is good for the individual fish or wildlife species and the outcome will invariably be good for the hunters, trappers and anglers.

With that in mind, why, then would a Maine Senator blindly launch a bill that is, on it’s face, prejudicial in favor of farmers and woodlot owners when what they are asking could be devastating for the species in question, wild turkeys?

Does it seem reasonable that the good Senator would first formulate the essence of the bill and meet with or get an opinion from the scientists; the biologists? Does it seem relevant to then seek out impacts on landowner issues such as posted land and property damage? Then wouldn’t it be prudent to consider the financial benefits and detractions?

The answer is no to all those obvious actions that should have taken place before a bill such as LD-84 is launched into the public spotlight, certain to face the ire of one side or the other.

There are so many direct parallels to the problems we hunters face with gun control measures it’s scary. Most news reporters don’t know a “bullet” from tablespoon and certainly can’t define the differences between a machine gun and a hunting rifle.

I’ve been an advocate for more turkey hunting opportunity since the 1986 season. I warned time and again that over-population would become a dramatic issue either due to public outcry over damage, competition or disease. I side with the biologists but not the IF&W politicians who put revenue first and always regardless of species instead of my public cry for “Species First.”

When Maine first introduced turkeys they were pen-raised and not able to sustain harsh winters. When birds were traded with Vermont and released in YorkCounty, the turkeys found better habitat in New   Hampshire. The next batch of wild strains were dumped through department politics on the then Commissioner brothers island.

I remain a Life Member of the National Wild Turkey Federation but dropped out of local volunteerism when I differed with the turkey project leader at time about mixing wild and pen-raised strains. Also, I feared the local chapter was getting too involved in fund-raising rather than the hands on involvement. Fundraising was important and Maine chapters raised $263,091.and funneled that into turkey restoration projects locally. However, hands-on involvement decreased and Chapter events today look more like DU or TU fundraising events.

As for the merits of LD-84, perhaps the most irresponsible is the demotion of wild turkeys from a “Big Game” species to allow holders of a small game license take turkeys. I was the leader in writing the original bill to make wild turkeys a big game species for two reasons. First it is a big game bird in appearance and every way you care to view them. Second it was a method to bring much needed income into IF&W in the Spring when the department was short of cash.

We talked with over a dozen regional states and biologists from all agreed that the move was important. Also, the fines afforded to violators of big game species fit the crime. Many of those important “seed” turkeys cost between $100 and $300 each of hard cold cash not to mention the thousands of hours of manpower.

Restoration of wild turkeys to their native habitats and beyond was one of the great all-time success stories. To diminish the species to small game would, in my mind, be one of the greatest all-time disasters.

Rather than take the bill apart piece by irresponsible piece, let me outline what I feel would be a responsible reconstruction of LD-84.

I would retain the big game status, of course but I would do away with the permit requirement. I’ve long argued it served it’s original purpose and is currently being used as a cash generator and a burden on hunters both resident and non-resident.

I have no problem with all day hunting in the spring. We helped write the closure of 11 a.m. to protect nesting hens but the population can now withstand all day pursuit.

Next, I would offer a 2-bearded wild turkey bag in the spring with dates as they now are structured. In the future a 3-bird per spring season may be needed. As for fall hunting I would offer a 2 turkey, either sex with no permit needed other than the big game license requirement. I would expand the fall season to include 12 days and to include 2 Saturdays. As for reporting I feel it is necessary to report the kill information but drop back to a $2.00 reporting fee; $1.00 for the check station and $1.00 for IF&W. We simply cannot afford to lose the scientific data collected through reporting.

As for appeasing the farmers, orchardists and transplanted urbanites, the Maine Warden Service should be held responsible for damage control enforcement. And I would immediately stop the wanton killing of turkeys by wardens and farmers, only to bury the carcasses. Any fish or wildlife taken under damage control regulations should be tagged and reported, including disposition. Maine GameWardens fly way too loose and fast on many fronts with less than adequate supervision. Hunters must abide by our “Wanton Waste” law, so should Game Wardens and landowners.

As to the reasons for decline, I just read the findings of the panel convened to determine causes for non-resident license decline and just shook my head and wondered how many of those well-educated people have wooden heads. I only hope the task force just convened to study LD-84 has wiser representatives.

Cost is the primary reason for decline in permit sales, followed by lack of adequate opportunity. Offering the whole month of October is foolish and would result in thousands of acres of additional posted land.

While there are no stats to support my claim, through the grapevine I consistently hear of hunters who say, “If they (IF&W) view turkeys with such low esteem, why bother buying a permit?  For that matter, why not just help yourself to as many birds as you can get away with. Keep your tag until you get stopped. Others report they simply took their legally taken turkey home rather than pay the total fees of $15 and have to drive sometimes 20 – 50 miles roundtrip just to  report. As for non-residents, why would they pay the huge fees to hunt for just a few days?

As a started this blog, can you imagine if we were talking about diminishing whitetail deer hunting rather than wild turkey? For that matter, would upland bird hunters live with a 6 day grouse hunting season? If turkeys become a small game species what’s fair for turkey is fair for grouse.

I regularly talk with prominent biologists and have yet to have two agree that turkeys will eat deer out of food sources and that matches my personal observations. Wild turkeys will turn over a huge amount of groundcover but I can’t even come close to thinking they push away or cause deer to starve. As for turkeys eating apple tree buds, I’ve seen grouse tipping the tree limbs in cold weather and can’t find any scientific backing that turkeys do the same.

As for the Fiscal Impact of this legislation as proposed, here is the impact statement directly from the legislative body:

“This legislation would eliminate the turkey permit requirements and allow the hunting of turkey with a big or small game hunting license. These provisions would result in a loss of General Fund revenue of $246,142 in fiscal year 2013-14 and $328,190 in fiscal year 2014-15. This analysis assumes elimination of all revenue from sale of turkey permits partially offset by a 25% increase in non-resident small game licenses.”