This is typically a quiet time of year for hunters throughout the state. The four-month whitetail season is over at the end of January. The six-week waterfowl season that begins around New Year's has ended, too. Except for some geese and small game, Maryland hunters spend most of February and March celebrating their conquests and gearing up to do it again next fall.

But not this year.

Verbal shots are being fired in the direction of the Department of Natural Resources and the lawmakers who soon are expected to vote on the first increase in hunting license fees in more than two decades. The proposal has put the DNR in the political cross hairs of its largest — albeit shrinking — constituency.

The recommendations have yet to reach the floor of the General Assembly, but the debate has already begun about whether the DNR's proposed increase is excessive and ill-timed. While the new regular consolidated license would include several stamps that in the past were added on for bowhunting and muzzleloading privileges, the thought of paying as much as $95 has some hunters up in arms.

Lou Compton, president of the Maryland Bowhunters Society, agrees that the DNR should raise its hunting license fee for the first time since 1989, but the amount being asked and the manner in which it has been done angers Compton and some of his members. Since 1989, hunters have paid a basic $24.50 fee and $6 for each stamp needed.

"The timing could not be worse," Compton said, alluding to other tax and fee increases proposed by Gov.Martin O'Malley. "It wasn't vetted; it wasn't discussed. This kind of dropped like a bombshell. I'm getting hammered with calls, and they've been 8- or 9-to-1 against what is being proposed. A lot of people just can't afford it."

Paul Peditto, the director of wildlife and heritage services for the DNR, said he met three times in the past year with the Governor's Wildlife Advisory Commission to discuss the possible increase as well as earlier this month with "the big stakeholders."

Peditto said that because the proposed increase had yet to become a bill — as of Friday night it had still not dropped in Annapolis but was expected to shortly — that the specifics could not be discussed.

"We talked with the commission in principle and in a little more detail with the stakeholders," Peditto said.

Steve Huttner, who manages a research department at the Johns Hopkins University and describes himself as a "24-7 outdoorsman," said that had the proposed increase not come on the heels of a proposed 6 percent gas tax and the jump in tolls that has already been approved, hunters might not feel the same way.

"They might have been more open-minded about it," Huttner said. "You had all these other proposed increases, and people were looking at their bottom line with everything going up. After all these other ones were rolled out, DNR was saying, 'We have to do the same.' I think this might have been the final one that pushed some people and caught them off-guard."

Huttner said he is more confident that the DNR's needs are genuine than he is about the needs of other state agencies and organizations that have pushed the O'Malley administration for the rate increases.

"For me personally, I will fight and argue against all the other fees; the ones for DNR, I understand why they want it," Huttner said. "It doesn't bother me that it's going to DNR. I know the people there, and I know where that money is going. That money is protected. It can't be raided, it can't be transferred into the general fund, like a lot of the other stuff that can be played with down there [in Annapolis]."

Compton said that he and nearly every outdoorsman he has spoken to were unaware of the proposed increase until reading an interview with Peditto in Maryland Hunting Quarterly, the magazine that broke the news.

In the interview, Peditto pointed to the declining numbers of in-state hunters and the rising management and research costs for the DNR as the reasons for the proposed increase.

In a subsequent interview with The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, Peditto said that while the current number of in-state hunters (a little more than 80,000) is relatively stable, it represents a "a major decline" in the hunting population since its height of about 180,000 in the 1970s.

With many hunters focusing mostly on deer, the cost of management, research and catching poachers has skyrocketed, Peditto said.

While the number of junior hunters (whose fees won't be affected, along with seniors and veterans) has increased slightly, Peditto said, "It's not enough to fill the bucket back." Peditto said that a $1 million surplus the DNR dipped into the past few years to help pay for a variety of programs has nearly run out.

Peditto said he is "wholly sympathetic" to hunters who have to pay exorbitant gasoline prices to drive to the Eastern Shore or to Western Maryland to hunt, and understands that the cost of gear and other equipment makes some think they're shopping at a boutique clothing store, but he added, "the least expensive part of the hunter's day" is the money spent on the license.

Figure it this way: While the increase might be significant for those who hunt only a few times a year, those whose weekends are spent trying to bring down an eight-point buck rather than watching Ravens defensive star Terrell Suggs bring down an opposing quarterback might not be shelling out much more than another kind of buck for the day's experience.

Even Allan Ellis, the publisher of Maryland Hunting Quarterly, agrees that "we're talking about pennies per day" for those hard-core hunters. But Ellis, like many hunters, believes the cost should be shared with other outdoors enthusiasts, such as runners and bicyclists who also use the state's public lands for recreation.

"Hunters and fishermen are the only ones who are being asked to sustain their pursuits," Ellis said.

Huttner, who estimates that the new license fee will cost him an extra $3 a month, said that "wildlife-management areas in Maryland are paid for by hunters' dollars. It doesn't come from the general fund, and everyone else is getting a free ride off of us. For the most part, hunters have been willing to step up and assume that role."

Peditto said Maryland hunters should appreciate that the available wildlife-management areas to pursue their passion have nearly doubled from 60,000 acres to 112,000 acres, and that public hunting lands have also increased to about 500,000 acres. In the mid-1950s, only about 15,000 deer were killed by hunters; last year it was about 100,000.

Huttner agrees.

"For the opportunity you're afforded here in Maryland — from bears to turkeys to ducks and geese and deer — and the length of the season and the bag limits, I think you get a pretty product for your investment," Huttner said. "I don't want to see any more cuts in wildlife management. I'm afraid if less money is allocated, we're going to really start seeing a cut into the core basic services."

According to Peditto, the DNR generates about $8 million of its $10 million budget through license fees and the federal excise tax on guns and ammunition.

Peditto said that some surveys and other scientific studies, along with positions in the department, might have to be cut if the proposed increase is not passed. Many of these surveys and studies — particularly when it comes to deer and bears — could affect the hunting seasons. "Without the science," Peditto said, "you don't have the recreation."

Asked whether Maryland risks losing its hunters to neighboring states if the proposed increase goes through, Peditto said the DNR expects to take a hit. But given how much other states charge their hunters — as much as $134 in West Virginia and $143 in New Jersey, and as little as $60 in Pennsylvania — Peditto said he believes that it won't have a long-term impact.

But Compton and others say that the license fee increase is not the only change that might drive hunters away. Compton said that the proposal that would limit Maryland hunters to three bucks a year — compared with nine currently — could also shift the landscape away from local lands. Compton said the DNR's image could be damaged irreparably.

"It's going to taint the relationship," Compton said. "They're going to be looked at as The Man, as a political organization, not as a partner in conservation wildlife."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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