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Jim Kenyon: Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department Hunting Small Bucks

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Since the 1960s, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has offered hunters and anglers the opportunity to purchase a “permanent” license for $50 when they turned 65 that was good for the rest of their days.

No more.

In May, the Legislature decided that some senior citizens were getting too good of a deal at the expense of the Fish & Wildlife Department’s bottom line.

Starting Jan. 1, older hunters and anglers will continue to pay the regular license fees, $42 a year for a combined hunting and fishing license in 2017, until they turn 70. After that, they can get a permanent license for free.

But it’s a small consolation for the estimated 2,600 hunters and anglers who will be affected by the law change in 2017.

Wayne Fifield, of Strafford, has hunted and fished for more than 50 years. With his 65th birthday coming up in June, he was looking forward to purchasing his last license.

“It was something of a milestone,” said Fifield, who recently heard about the law change on WCAX-TV.

When I called Fifield’s house, he was just coming in after spending a couple of hours before dark on his deer stand. (Muzzleloader season ends today.)

He’s heard Fish & Wildlife’s argument that, with people living longer than they did a few decades ago, 70 is the new 65 for hunters and anglers.

But Fifield, a carpenter, wonders how much hunting and fishing he’ll be doing in five years. “I think at 70, in my line of work, my knees and back will be so bad that I probably won’t be able to do what I do now,” he told me. “My knees are bad already.”

By my math, Fifield will pay $160 over the next five years in additional combination license fees. He’ll also continue to pay $23 a year for a muzzleloader license.

“What about people who are retired and struggle make ends meet?” Fifield asked. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to hunt and fish at age 65 and maybe put a little venison or fish in the freezer?”

Offering permanent licenses to folks when they reached age 65 was also a tip of the hat to residents who had carried on the state’s outdoor traditions over the years. For deer hunters, in particular, it was a way to reward their perseverance.

Nationally, hunting has been on the wane for a while now, and Vermont is no exception. As recently as 2000, the state sold 98,500 hunting licenses. Last year, it was down to about 67,000.

If the goal is to get more hunters in the woods, or at least keep the ones still out there, I’m not sure how the change in the permanent license law furthers that goal. It’s hardly an incentive for our most experienced hunters to stick with the sport.

If the change wasn’t bad enough, some hunters think the Legislature, along with the Fish & Wildlife Department, which proposed the change, pulled a bit of a fast one on them. The change was tucked inside a 56-page “fee bill” that didn’t get much attention until near the end of the legislative session. While Fish & Wildlife put out a news release in November, I didn’t hear about it until Wayne Fifield’s wife, Kathy, emailed me earlier this month.

“I understand why people have a problem with it,” Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said when we talked last week. “It’s going to affect people on fixed incomes. I didn’t like doing it. But this was a change we needed to make for the long-term financial stability of the department.”

The change is expected to generate $126,000 in additional revenue over the next five years, according to Fish & Wildlife estimates. In a department with an annual budget of $22.3 million, it seems the potential loss of goodwill is hardly worth the additional $25,000 a year in revenue.

But Fish & Wildlife is counting on a bigger revenue surge down the road as more middle-aged hunters reach 65. It’s money that can be used to pay game wardens and support conservation projects, Porter said.

He also pointed out that neighboring states are changing their policies. This year, New Hampshire stopped giving away licenses to anyone age 68 and older. They now pay $7 a year, except for those born before Jan. 1, 1948, who were grandfathered in.

Porter, who grew up in Vermont and is a deer hunter, strikes me as a stand-up guy — and I hope Gov.-elect Phil Scott can see that as well when it comes time to re-appoint him. I just disagree with him on this issue.

From a political standpoint, it was an expedient way for Porter to add to Fish & Wildlife’s coffers. Most Vermont lawmakers aren’t hunters. Other than paying lip service to the tradition during election season, they don’t concern themselves much with issues that negatively affect hunters.

If Fish &Wildlife is feeling any qualms about easing its budget woes by sticking it to older hunters and anglers, I propose they consider an alternative: Landowners enrolled in the state’s current use program (or welfare for the rich, as I see it) who post their land could continue to do so, but it would cost them. For the privilege of keeping their land off-limits to hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, they’d pay a fee that would support Fish &Wildlife.

Considering the clout that wealthy landowners enjoy in the state, it’s probably a long shot at best. But still worth a try — sort of like hauling an aging body out into the woods one more time in hopes of bagging a big buck.