“The way life should be.”

These are the slogans used to attract nonresident visitors to our state.

Apparently, they’re not working. And the problem is significant enough that the Legislature passed a resolve establishing a “Task Force To Examine the Decline in the Number of Nonresident Hunters,” charged with reviewing the numbers of nonresident hunters over the last five years, comparing that with national trends and developing recommendations to increase the number of nonresident hunters.

Preliminary results illustrate the issues. According to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife statistics, nonresident hunting licenses declined by 23 percent from 1995 to 2010. Alien hunting licenses declined 88 percent, from 1,885 to 232. Those aren’t encouraging numbers.

Part of the problem might be simply an overall decline in hunters. Task force data show the percentage of the nationwide population that hunts declined by about 2 percent from 1995 to 2010.

Meanwhile, data from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation show a decline of roughly 10 percent among those 16 years old and older, while the percentage of participation by 6-to-15-year-olds actually increased by 4 percent. Additionally, the overall number of hunters in the U.S. declined by 7 percent from 1996 to 2001 and by 4 percent from 2001 to 2006.

Nationwide, reasons for these declines are numerous and varied. Two studies conducted in 1995 and 2008 by Responsive Management showed work obligations and fee increases among the top.

Locally, there are some more obvious reasons. Many nonresidents, especially nonresident landowners, feel that excluding them from the opening day of deer season is discriminatory and disrespectful. Several in-state sportsmen’s groups have championed abolishing this policy, but there remains enough resident resistance and pressure on elected officials to keep it in place.

A ban on Sunday hunting also puts Maine at a significant disadvantage. In a sagging economy, it’s much more difficult to take time off from work to hunt (see above). That leaves only one weekend day available for many people, and the prospect of heading north for a single day’s hunt is enough to dissuade many a potential nonresident license buyer.

Then there’s what we have to offer. Because deer hunting has the highest level of participation, more than all other methods combined, it provides the best index to overall trends.

Maine’s deer herd is in tough shape. Deer hunting success during the regular firearms season was estimated at 12 percent in 2010, with slightly higher success rate (range 20 percent to 48 percent) for hunters who drew an any-deer permit.

In Maine we ask, “Did you get your deer yet?” while in most states outside New England, people ask, “How many?” or “Which deer?” And it’s quite common for hunters to pass up does and smaller bucks waiting for a quality deer.

There is hope. The Responsive Management studies found several factors responsible for a noticeable recovery of or increase in license sales. One was an effort to publicize particular programs, an area where Maine has been lacking, largely due to insufficient allocation of funds.

Another was increasing the availability of game, something Maine hopes to accomplish with its deer management plan. We’ve had some success in creating new hunting opportunities — expanded archery and turkey hunting and implementation of specialized programs like youth hunts.

Solutions exist, but they won’t come without cost, and changes won’t be universally accepted. With the right leadership and support, it is possible to reverse the trend and once again make Maine a desirable destination for nonresident hunters.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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