AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are considering relaxing a prohibition on money changing hands when hunters legally swap permits in Maine’s competitive and tightly regulated moose hunt.
Since 2015, hunters who were successful during the state’s moose lottery have been allowed to exchange permits but could not offer each other money or any other form of compensation. A bill that won preliminary endorsement from a legislative committee on Monday would once again allow payments between hunters and also allow hunting guides to facilitate such swaps. But the bill would prohibit guides from receiving any compensation for helping arrange a swap – a prohibition that law enforcement officials warned could be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court.
“Whenever remuneration involved, it is a difficult thing to prove unless one of the sides is cooperating with law enforcement,” Lt. Dan Scott with the Maine Warden Service told members of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. “When there is a little bit in it for everybody, generally we are the ones that are left out.”
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife awarded 2,080 moose hunting permits last year, representing less than 5 percent of the 47,000 individuals who entered the state’s “moose lottery.” Each permits specifies the time frame, hunting region/zone and whether the hunter is entitled to kill a bull, a calf or either sex. But in order to accommodate hunters who preferred a different permit, the department has allowed individuals to swap permits.
In 2015, the department used rulemaking to prohibit any money from changing hands during those swaps in response to complaints from hunters who were offered, in some cases, thousands of dollars for their permits.
“Some of those people viewed that as a commercialization of wildlife,” said Bill Swan, director of licensing and registration at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “A lot of these people basically had been waiting their whole life to get a permit and the fact that somebody could pay them a big amount of amount of money to gain a better permit they found to be offensive. It wasn’t just one (complaint) and it wasn’t 100. But it was enough to that it came up on our radar screen.”
Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, introduced the bill, L.D. 630, at the request of a constituent who believes he’s lost tens of thousands of dollars in guiding revenues since the prohibition on compensation took effect. The guide, who works in a prime moose hunting zone, had catered to clients willing to pay another permit holder for a chance to hunt in that area.
“It’s a big deal for folks up north, especially the Maine guides,” Martin, a former Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner under Gov. John Baldacci, said last week.
The Maine Professional Guides Association initially opposed the bill over concerns that allowing paid swaps could undermine the fairness of a system that is supposed to enable “hunt of a lifetime” for Mainers regardless of their income. After lengthy discussion, committee members opted to add language specifying that professional guides or others could not be paid for helping to facilitate a swap. For instance, if a guiding service helped connect two permit holders interested in an exchange, the service could not charge more than their standard guide rate if one of those clients decided to hire the guide.
Roughly 10 percent of last year’s moose permits went to non-Maine residents, a group considered most willing to pay potentially hefty sums for the chance to exchange their calf permit for a chance to hunt a trophy bull moose. Concerns were also raised Monday that allowing money to change hands during permit swaps could encourage people with no interest in moose hunting to enter the lottery in hopes of cashing in.
On Monday, Don Kleiner with the Maine Professional Guides Association said the complaints were “fairly widespread” before 2015, a time when the state issued more than 3,000 permits annually. But he said the amended bill represented an improvement.
“I think the committee has come to a good place and I am willing to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if this gets at the complaints and sort of resolves the issue,’” Kleiner said, “I’m not here to offer a guarantee that it will do it, one way or the other.”
Swan said the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which oversees the exchanges under the current system, sees roughly 100 swaps annually.
The committee voted 11-1 to endorse the bill, which will get a final language review at a future meeting before being sent to the full House and Senate for consideration.