AUGUSTA — Some could barely reach the microphone, but their voices were heard loud and clear Tuesday as a group of Spruce Mountain Middle School students asked a panel of lawmakers to change the state's deer-hunting rules.
The students, all boys, testified before the Legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on a bill that would allow hunters ages 10 to 15 to shoot anterless deer in their first kills.
An anterless deer is a female or a male that is too young to have developed antlers.
Current law allows a youth hunter to shoot an anterless deer only on the state's youth hunting day, which happens before the start of the regular firearms season.
The reason for the proposed change was simple, Parker Beaulieu, one of the students testifying, said.
"The reason I'm in support of this bill is that it would encourage and promote current and future youth hunters by giving us the chance of having a successful hunt," Beaulieu. "This would give youth hunters the ability to be more successful without the added pressure of finding a deer with antlers. This would allow us to focus more on the target and making a good shot."
Noah Gilbert, another student and the grandson of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Giblert, D-Jay, said allowing young hunters to shoot either male or female deer would help grow and promote the long tradition of hunting in Maine.
It could even help the state economically, Noah said.
"A hunter that has success is more likely to continue to hunt in future seasons," he said. "They would continue to purchase a hunting license, help to control the population of the herd and would provide the state biologist with important information about the species."
The bill would leave in place rules that prohibit shooting anterless deer in state wildlife management districts where shooting young or female deer is prohibited as part of a wildlife management plan.
Also speaking in favor of the bill was student Hunter Quirrion.
"Kids would get out and be healthier and not obese," Quirrion said. "They would also grow an interest in Maine's woods instead of sitting in front of the screens: iPods, computers, TV, etc."
Students Tate Walton and Brett Hunt were also at the committee meeting to show their support for the measure. But the bill was not without opponents, including the Professional Guides Association and the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine.
David Trahan, SAM's executive director, said it was difficult to oppose the bill, given the youth support and the boys' enthusiasm for hunting, but for his group, the importance of maintaining a healthy deer herd by ensuring plenty of does to produce offspring was more important.
Trahan, a former lawmaker and a former member of the committee, said he served on it when Maine's youth hunting day was created and was proud of that work.
"This testimony does not reflect any of my personal or SAM's position against young people hunting in the woods," Trahan said. He said SAM opposed the measure because the number of youths who would be allowed to shoot does would have a big impact on the deer herd.
"So for that reason, with the effort we are making as an organization to bring the deer herd back, we just don't think that this bill is appropriate at this time," Trahan said.
Don Kliner, representing the Maine Professional Guides Association, agreed with Trahan that guides did not want to discourage young people from getting involved in hunting or other outside pursuits, but the message the proposed bill would send, if passed, was contrary to their focus on wildlife and resource conservation.
"The reason why hunting has been so successful in not only bringing back wildlife populations that were once nearly extinct, including whitetail deer, is that we have rules," Kliner said. "Rules to promote the conservation, the wise use of the species that we all hold so dear and reverently. I would argue that allowing children to disobey or not take part in the rules robs them of the opportunity to participate in the covenant of conservation that is hunting."
All five of the students, and especially those who addressed the committee, were praised by members of the panel for participating in their state government and for doing an excellent job at public speaking.
The bill moves next to a work session before the committee, to be scheduled at a later date.