There have been quantum changes in public hunting on private land. When hunting season once arrived, the woods and fields belonged to sportsmen and women for a few weeks except for a break on Sunday. Hounds were out in seasons for bear, bobcat and raccoon. And then there was peace.
Today, changed Maine statutes allow some hunters to be out all day, all year long except Sunday, and all night for eight and a half months of the year. Coyote and raccoon hunters equipped with digital sighting and viewing devices hunt at night behind camps and residences on unposted land, their only limit to discharge firearms more than 300 feet from buildings or residences.
Fields with livestock are swept with lights. Firearms disturb the night near farms and camps without people being notified. Hound packs unlimited in size pursue coyote on unposted private land through farms, front yards and woodlots all year round.
Bait is placed on private land all year without hunters asking any permission, using standards that ensure it will be hidden from landowners. In season, bear bait can be hidden by these same standards without asking permission or paying the landowner a fee for a bait station. Motion detecting cameras are placed without notification to the private owner.
An average 12 hunters per Maine municipality are licensed to hunt at night and the number is growing, according to data from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
These are intrusive and troublesome departures from traditional public activities on private land.
Maine private property owners form the foundation of the wildlife economy. Private properties provide almost all the land and protect the brooks and streams where nature produces all Maine wildlife and fish. They then provide the majority of the places where the public hunts and experiences living creatures.
Outfitters, lodges, local businesses, Maine Guides all receive revenues from free access to private land they don’t own. The economic value of wildlife recreation in Maine totaled more than $1.5 billion in 2006. Hunting, trapping, fishing and wildlife watching are larger in value than all skiing, whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, windjammer cruises, or other recreational attractions combined. Wildlife-generated revenues surpass the economic value of Maine’s commercial fishing industry, according to the 2006 study.
The landowners who donate the very foundation of this economy are barred from participating in it. Maine landowners are guilty of a crime if they charge for access to their lands to take game. Only those few landowners who enter into leases for exclusive access to lands for fishing or
hunting by groups who bar the public receive revenues in the wildlife economy. And now landowners are burdened with more costs to manage these new uses on their lands — after carrying the costs of taxes and ownership and giving up timber revenue to preserve wildlife habitat for the public.
We all lament that access to private land is diminishing. Requests for public signs to post land increased 50 percent last year, according to Bob Duplessie, the former landowner relations manager for the Department of Conservation.
Many landowners who traditionally opened private properties to the public would continue to do so if only landowner permission were required to manage these new kinds of public use. Instead, they bear extra costs for signage, gates, road trenches and rock barriers to protect their
properties. When the difficult decision is made to post land to manage these uses, it is usually posted against all access and everybody loses.
Two bills to help address these private property rights issues will be presented for public hearing in Augusta at 1 p.m. on March 21 before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.
LD 559 will require written permission to be obtained from landowners to place bait of any kind on private land. It would also have hunters actually ask for permission to hunt at night on private land and to pursue bear, bobcat or coyote with hounds. No change in permission is required for any other traditional hunting activities. Another provision of the bill is that a special purple paint can be used in place of signs for managing access to property.
LD 223 is an important complementary bill that requires written permission for recreational activities and trapping on farmland.
Unlikely, but it would be quite wonderful if those supporting these new year-round, night-and-day uses of private land are willing to support extending courtesy to the landowners who provide them the opportunity for recreation. It will be an important win for all if we see a reduction of posted land as a result of mutual courtesy.
Gordon Mott is a professional forester. He lives in Lakeville.