On Saturday, thousands of hunters will rise bright and early, head into the woods and take part in the state’s traditional opening day of the firearms season on deer.
Those hunters will have one thing in common: They’ll all be Maine residents.
According to Maine law, the first Saturday of deer season is theirs alone. Mainers — forget the age-old debate about who gets to stick that label on themselves, for our purposes we’re talking about people who currently live here and are eligible to purchase a resident hunting license — get first crack at filling their tags. They get a head start on nonresident hunters.
Many Mainers are perfectly happy with that. Those of us who do proudly attach the “Made in Maine” label to ourselves sometimes distrust outsiders and can often be heard poking fun at those “from away.”
But residents only on opening day? It’s simply absurd.
Picture this: An old-timer up the road had three boys. All grew up hunting. Two stuck around, settled in the area. One had to move to — gasp! — Boston to find a job. Still, they’re all Mainers at heart and, come deer season, they’ll all return to the woods together.
Not so fast. That one son? The one who lives in Boston? On opening day, he can’t come along. He’ll be at camp, cleaning, reading a book or waiting for word that someone needs help dragging a deer.
Or picture this: There’s a successful businessman from New Hampshire who owns several acres of land not far from your house. He’s a good guy, everyone agrees: Heck, he even allows open access for hunting and fishing on that land and lets the local snowmobile club and ATV club put a trail through it.
He also loves to hunt. That’s why he bought the land, after all. But come opening day of deer season, he’s out of luck. He sits in the small cabin down near the swamp, listens to shots ring out and sometimes heads out to lend a hand in tracking someone else’s deer. But hunt? Oh, no. He can’t. He’s not a Mainer, you see.
Some say the reason the law exists is because “it always has.” While that’s a bad reason for any law to be on the books, in this case, it’s also terribly inaccurate.
“It’s not that much of a tradition,” said Matthew Dunlap of Old Town, who served in the Maine legislature, was Maine’s secretary of state and most recently worked as interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “It was back, I think, in the late ’70s or early ’80s [when the law was enacted]. The impetus behind that was to kind of give something to resident hunters, obviously. It didn’t cost anything. It seemed like a nice thing to do.”
In the 30 or so years that the law has existed, it has gained traction as a “tradition” that many don’t want to tamper with. But when Dunlap thinks about how many Mainers have moved out of state to pursue jobs, the inequity of the existing law becomes glaring.
“What changes the dynamic for us [in Maine] is that we have so many nonresidents who come here because they have a connection here,” Dunlap said. “This is where it becomes grotesquely unfair.”
Take the example of a family member who moves away, but still likes to come back and hunt with family members each fall, Dunlap said.
“Well, now they’re [nonresidents]. They come up to the family plot of land to go deer-hunting on opening day and they’ve got to sit back and cook potatoes for everybody else,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap is a veteran of the political process. He said SAM has regularly lobbied to abolish the residents-only opening day of deer season. But he fully understands why the law remains.
“The reason why we haven’t been able to get any traction in the legislature is because very few legislators want to go home and say, ‘Guess what I did for you? I increased your competition for that deer with people from Massachusetts. Aren’t you glad?’” Dunlap said. “Nobody wants to take that home [to their constituents].”
“So what?” you say. What does it matter?
Here’s how it matters: Maine is competing for the traveling hunter with plenty of other nearby locations, including New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Quebec and New Brunswick.
Dunlap said a hunter in New Jersey in search of an adventure may not consider Maine as highly as he once did, and the opening-day inequity is one more mark in the wrong column for a state that claims to value outside investment and tourism dollars.
“Are you going to go to New York, which is a shorter trip for you, and you can hunt in the Adirondacks? Or are you going to go to Maine, where you’ve read there are no deer and, by the way, you can’t hunt opening day?” Dunlap asked.
Increasingly, hunters are staying away. And while the plight of a struggling deer herd is certainly a key reason, the opening-day inequity can’t help. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in October started conducting meetings of a task force examining the decline in nonresident hunters.
And while many factors are being discussed, there’s one simple regulation the state could change that would send a valuable message to hunters “from away.”
Treat them better. Let them hunt on opening day, along with the rest of us.
“We charge [nonresidents] about four times the license fee, and they only get 10 percent of the moose permits [and] about 10 percent of the any-deer permits,” Dunlap said. “We really screw them in many ways. And I think for the people who have sporting camps, they’re losing business because of it.”
Alas, in order for the law to change and for the message we’re sending to nonresidents to brighten, it would take a special legislator willing to champion a cause that provides him little political gain in his home district.
“I think that logically and intellectually legislators understand it, but it becomes a political issue,” Dunlap said.
So for now, there’s little real movement toward abolishing the residents-only opener.
“No one’s really being a champion of it,” Dunlap said, admitting that when he was in the legislature, he supported changing the law, but didn’t actively fight for a new law.
Here’s hoping someone will.