An effort to jump-start the economy in parts of rural Maine led to legislative passage of a bill that would allow hunting and fishing lodges to purchase a limited number of moose permits, which they could then sell to interested sports at a premium.
The guides would get work. The lodges would have more guests. The guests would spend money in the more rural parts of the state where that cash is needed most. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would funnel some of that cash — each permit would cost the lodge $1,500 — toward its moose research program.
Everybody wins. That’s the way it was supposed to work, anyway.
But along the way, the bill morphed into something its proponents didn’t expect. When it was finally passed, LD 738 defined “hunting outfitter” as “a person who operates an eating and lodging place … and who provides package deals that include food, lodging and the services of a guide.”
LD 738 was sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash.
And that, some say, means that any lodging establishment — even one far from the rural districts where moose hunting takes place — could scoop up permits and hire any guide they would like.
Matt Libby is a guide whose family has been in the sporting camp business since 1890. He was among those who fought hard for the passage of LD 738. And while he remains optimistic that rural northern Maine may benefit, he says that the finished product wasn’t what he originally envisioned.
“Having the hunts and having money spent in the remote sections of Maine like ours, where the moose inhabit, [was the idea],” Libby said. “[That] just happens to coincide with the poorest part of Maine.”
And those commercial forests of rural northern Maine are home to most of the state’s moose, and the spot most moose hunters end up. Last year, 3,025 of the 4,110 permit-holders — 74 percent — hunted in Wildlife Management Districts 1 through 6, an area that roughly covers the part of the state north of Millinocket and the Golden Road.
By allowing any lodging establishment — theoretically even one in southern Maine — to cash in on that effort to boost the state’s sporting camps, the bill changed drastically.
“It got bastardized a bit, I guess, to get it through [the Legislature],” Libby said. “That’s where the legislators fell a little flat, I think.”
Libby said that much of the money spent lobbying for the bill came from small sporting camps like his. Every dollar spent by those camp owners had been hard-earned, and was spent in hopes of propping up a struggling industry.
Libby Camps has survived in part because of its stability and reputation, and the industry itself is a tough one to succeed in, Libby said.
Several years ago, when attending winter sporting shows across the Northeast, Libby would book deer hunts with enthusiastic sports.
“I would have people put their names on the list for not this year, but next year,” Libby said. “We were already full [for the coming year].
Now, after two severe winters that devastated the northern Maine deer herd, between December 2007 and March 2009, that’s not the case, and many traveling hunters are avoiding Maine during deer season.
That, Libby said, makes a successful moose season even more important.
“This law gives a guarantee [according to 2012 permit allocations] of 90 permits to guides,” Libby said. “That’s pretty cool.”
Libby said the law’s implementation is still being tinkered with and he hopes that a provision is added that requires lodging establishments to be within 50 miles of the zone to be hunted.
Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, said the new law isn’t perfect and he isn’t sure how many permits would be up for grabs via lottery for lodging establishments.
According to the law, each year the state’s public moose lottery tops the total handed out in 2010 — 3,140 permits — 10 percent of the permits in excess of 3,140 must be allocated by lottery to hunting outfitters.
Last year, with more than 4,100 permits awarded via lottery, that would have meant that nearly 100 permits would have gone to lodging establishments.
Requests for comment from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife were unsuccessful.
Kleiner pointed out that those who assume that the number of moose permits allotted by the state will continue to increase may be wrong, and if the permit total drops in the future, so too will the number of permits that lodging establishments will receive.
Kleiner prefers to let the guides and sporting camp owners express their own concerns, and to focus on the positive.
“The good news is, there’s finally some recognition for the industry,” Kleiner said. “So that’s a ray of sunshine.”
While Libby fought for the bill, some other guides and sporting camp operators opposed it.
One opponent was Tenley Bennett, who runs Fish River Lodge in Eagle Lake with her husband, Wayne.
“The original concept was pushed to promote northern Maine’s economy,” Bennett wrote in response to an email. “If all Maine establishments licensed for meals and lodging who partner with a guide can get in on the lottery, what’s to stop those from southern Maine from participating?”
Bennett also expressed concern at monetizing a wildlife resource.
“The plan is flawed and complicated and in the end, this is about moose management and shouldn’t be about the state’s economy in any region,” Bennett wrote. “Allocating permits for special interests sets an unfair precedent. The plan has already caused friction between guides and outfitters, hunters and lodging establishments.”
Randy Spencer, a guide and author who works out of Grand Lake Stream, said he has no real problem with the new law.
“I see guides and outfitters as important revenue producers in Maine’s outdoor/recreation economy,” Spencer said in an email. “To enhance this seems like a good idea to me. The tribes are successful using their guides and outfitters to draw sports for bear hunts, moose hunts, etc., and it makes perfect sense for us to do the same, as long as game populations are meeting or exceeding management goals.”
The state has allowed a limited number of people — 10, at present — to purchase moose permits through an auction each year. The permits typically sell for $10,000 or more, and proceeds benefit youth outdoor education.
John Banks, natural resources director for the Penobscot Indian Nation, also has experience with moose-permit auctions for hunts on tribal land with Penobscot guides. Each year the tribe auctions off five permits to hunters, who must meet a minimum bid of $4,000 each, he said.
Banks said the tribal hunts have been a great success, and offer hunters a different experience than the typical big game hunt.
“We’ve had a very successful program. It’s not like your typical modern-day moose hunt,” Banks said. “We build a lot of history and tribal culture into the hunt.”
Banks said that he thinks the state will have no trouble finding lottery applicants who are willing to spend $1,500 for a permit that they’ll sell to hunters. And he thinks the idea is a good one.
“I think it’s great that the state is choosing to work with sporting camps and guides. It’s such a longtime tradition in the state.”