Do Biologists and Game Wardens Listen to Sportsmen?
By Stu Bristol
The room is packed with hunters, anglers, trappers, ATV and snowmobile users. It's a Sportsman's Congress and someone from every part of Maine has their own axe to grind, their own pet peeves to feed back to the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.
"There's not enough deer." Says one hunter from Washington County. "Why do other states stock twice as many fish as Maine?" asks another, and still one more remarks about the stern treatment he and his friends got by the local warden during their last stay at hunting camp. This year's top gripe is what to do about those darn ATVs.
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One by one, you and your hunting buddies walk to the microphone and vent your likes and dislikes about a variety of topics. Did those words ever leave that hearing room? Were the biologists and wardens taking notes or was this hearing like the op-ed page of the local newspaper, designed to let readers (sportsmen and women) blow off steam.
Plenty of evidence leads me to believe a rift is spreading in the outdoor community, between Department personnel and license-holders. The talk around variety store lunch counters seldom is praising the Department. It's safe to say that hunters and anglers agree that biologists spend too much time studying dragonflies and turtles instead of game species and that wardens are still not that pleasant to meet in the field.
Previous to Col. Tim Peabody, the Warden force acted as though they came off duty in a Georgia chain gang. Less that one in ten ever had a friendly word to say and the public was deemed guilty until proven innocent and then held under suspicion.
Thanks to Peabody, the warden force is beginning to get good marks from the public.
As an outdoor writer, I stand with one foot in each camp. My readers hunt fish, trap, snowmobile, hike and do just about all there is to do in the out-of-doors and they rely upon my columns and articles to keep them informed.
To stay updated on current trends and policies I am also very close to the Information and Education personnel within the different agencies, including the Warden Force,and I get as often as I can with biologists. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is just one of dozens of state and federal agencies I deal with during the course of a year.
With weekly and monthly columns published nationwide as well as radio and television, Maine issues are diluted by issues in other states but my colleagues and I often ask the same question: how are we perceived by Wardens, biologists and the politicians?
With the inception of computers, the public relations staff of each state has become very proficient at stating department policy and local newspaper and television reporters give a fair account of the public's overall mood. So, I don't make it a habit to sit in on all the hearings. I do, however receive a large amount of e-mail letters and telephone calls, and eventually, I will respond to the readers inquiries, and their gripes will reach the people who should be hearing the gripe.
It would be unfair for me to broad-stroke biologists, wardens and politicians by saying they offer nothing more than lip service. Some do and others are very hard working professionals that seldom get the credit they deserve.
Still, there are times I have heard legitimate points being offered only to find out the next day that the resolution or regulation or policy had already been firmed up a day or two before the hearing. Legal guidelines really don't allow time for renovations to proposed regulations before publishing dates.
I can't think of a time when a proposed regulation published in tiny print alongside the obits was every changed to take into account some point made by a person at the legal public hearing on the ruling. It's a fact of life that special interest committees and organizations are the only ones privy to information in time to make changes.
Unfortunately this defeats what the public hearing was designed to do.
The answer to this month's Outdoor Question varies according to the person challenged. To give an example; biologists demand that lay-people address them as professionals. They have college degrees and "It's their job," they were hired to manage deer, fish, turkey or whatnot. Who is the public to say they are wrong?
Take my December Outdoor Question column as an example. "Is Micro-management of Maine's Fish & Wildlife Good or Bad?" Basically I asked how biologists (the professionals) manage fish and wildlife on the hundreds of thousands of acres of posted land in Maine. Specifically I asked Gerry Levigne (Maine's Deer Project Leader) "How does posted land and land trusts fit into those management plans?"
It was a simple enough question. You can't use hunting as a management tool on these properties. How do you reduce overpopulations of deer? I cited Peaks Island as an example, where a sharpshooter was hired to kill 250 deer at night with a silencer so as not to infuriate residents.
Lavigne's response to me was in the form of two department policy statements, "Proposed Deer Management Program for Peaks Island" which I already downloaded from the website and "Actions to Remedy Nuisance problems Resulting from Locally High Deer Densities."
Clipped to those sheets was a sticky note with the words, "Stu: Ref your NWSJ editorial for Dec. Before you shoot yourself in the foot with another of your pencil shot from the hip, enjoy a few facts, compliments of the deer project. G.L."
That's the "professional" response a prominent member of the outdoor press gets from the top dog in Maine's deer management? Other biologists I've dealt with over the years and Department personnel use official stationary and respond point-by-point in a more traditional manner.
If mainland neighborhood groups pick up on the precedent set by Peaks Island residents, we won't need wildlife managers. The towns will dictate deer management. With a dramatic increase in local "no discharge" of firearms ordinances, that day is coming fast.
Regional Wildlife Biologist, Phil Bozenhard, out the Gray office and I soundly disagree on wild turkey management but he responds to me at a professional level. He may curse me out behind the scene (who knows?) but he maintains the proper professional demeaner in public and in writing. I've whacked Phil a few times based on errant information (I don't always get it right) but I've also praised him on the things he's done right. The point being we are on the same side of doing what is in the best interest for fish and wildlife species first, and put human recreational sports second.
The same is true with Lt. Nat Berry, Warden supervisor at the Gray office. I was, and am still am livid about his ruling to allow anyone to guide turkey hunters without a Maine Guides license,(provided they don't get caught taking money for it) but he responded to my written criticism through the op-ed page. He simply said "he didn't like my article much." Well, LT., you were not supposed to. The turkey guiding business in Maine will continue to suffer until the permit system is abolished, thanks to your handiwork, but at least you recognize that I am a professional in my field and address me as one.
I'm not always right in my criticism, and diligent as I am for facts and figures, and I regret that someone on the same side of an issue will be on the receiving end of my commentary, but I can't think of any time I've bad-mouthed a biologist or warden or politician, as much they sometimes deserve it.
Until biologists and Game Wardens do a little more to listen to license-holders and recognize the public has much to offer, and, in return, the public at large recognizes the wardens and biologists benefit, more illegal fish stocking is going to take place, poaching is going to increase and the general mistrust of the department will remain a problem.
Stu Bristol is a freelance writer, living in Lyman. His weekly and monthly columns have been published nationwide for over 30 years. For more Stu Bristol articles visit www.stubristol.com.
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