Dream woodcock season comes true

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 06, 2010, at 6:32 p.m.

Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson of Millinocket was an avid bird hunter who spent countless hours afield behind his pointers, chasing grouse and woodcock through coverts in what he called “Katahdin Country.”

For several years before his death in 2007, at the age of 85, the legendary Maine guide told anyone who would listen — hunters sharing an afternoon hunt, state policymakers or federal biologists — that Mainers were getting the short end of the stick when it came to woodcock hunting.

The season should be longer, he said, reasoning that the population had rebounded sufficiently since the 1980s, and pointing out that since Maine doesn’t allow Sunday hunting, a federally approved 30-day season was actually four days shorter than that.

Somewhere, Wiggie Robinson is smiling today: According to the state’s top bird biologist, plans are in place — subject to federal approval next summer — that would extend the state’s woodcock season from 30 to 45 days beginning in 2011.

“[As] part of my role in [trying to get] this expanded opportunity, I’ve referred to Wiggie’s efforts,” Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife said last week. “Wiggie lobbied all the way up to the head of the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service. He was a squeaky wheel, and his logic was sound.”

Woodcock are migratory birds and the hunting seasons for them is set at the federal level. Allen said that according to the framework that has existed since the 1980s, Maine’s woodcock season has been 30 days long. But that wasn’t always the case.

“We started at 60 [days] and then the hunting season in the east went down to 30. It was a big jump down,” Allen said. “Then there was another little [decrease] from five birds [per day] to three birds. So the hunting opportunity has declined over the past 25 years or so in the east.”

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, hunters have been afforded more opportunity. That made sense — at first — according to Allen.

“Populations in the central region really held up longer than the ones in the east, because it’s all about habitat, and we were losing habitat on the east coast faster than they were in the Great Lakes states,” Allen said. “Stands to reason: There’s more people here.”

Now, though, Allen said that the East Coast’s woodcock populations are similar to those in the Great Lakes region, on the Central Flyway. And still, hunters in the Great Lakes states are allowed to hunt for 45 days while those in the east get only 30 … or in Maine’s case, 26, because no Sunday hunting is allowed.

“So we’ve kind of challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service: Why not allow us to be like [the Great Lakes region] in that case. It’s only fair. It’s equitable. And they’re amenable to that.”

Adding to Allen’s rationale: He said that flight birds — those birds that migrate into Maine from even more northern areas and are targeted by this state’s hunters — have been arriving later and later in recent years, with many birds showing up after the season closes at the end of October.

Allen said a formula has been developed by which Maine and the eastern states would get to hunt woodcock for 45 days for at least three consecutive years beginning in 2011. If the woodcock population drops, or if spring weather during breeding and roosting season is poor, the federal agency could opt to go back to a 30-day season after the 2013 season.

That’s the proposal, at least.

Taking that final step forward requires a federal OK, and although Allen is optimistic, he said nothing is set in stone at this juncture.

“[The situation] could change,” Allen said. “All these are kind of recommendations right now. There’s a high probability of it happening, but it won’t really happen until it’s finally approved next summer when we propose a 45-day season again and the bosses all the way up the ladder sign off on it. So it’s not done until it’s done, but all indications are that there will be more hunting opportunity for woodcock next year.”

If Mainers do get to enjoy a 45-day season, Allen knows one man who deserves a lot of credit.

“When [Wiggie] passed away, I wrote letters saying, ‘We need to follow through with this,’” Allen said. “Wiggie devoted a lot to this effort and he was a friend of mine. We can sort of call [any eventual passage of regulations that would lead to a 45-day season] ‘The Wiggie Effect,’ in a way.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/06/outdoors/dream-woodcock-season-comes-true/ printed on December 26, 2014