During a recent wildlife conference in Washington, D.C. a conservationist from Michigan used the accurate if hackneyed phrase "the deer population explosion" to underscore the tremendous increase in deer herds, not only in his own state but in most other big-game areas in the U.S. With 2 million deer hunters expected to take out licenses, it should follow that the coming season will be the best ever. Unfortunately, it probably won't be, because more and more good land is being closed to gunners. During the past year at least a million acres were shut off. Of these, some 300,000 were chewed up by bulldozers and graders in the furious expansion of city and suburb into what last season was still open country. Obviously, hunters have no control over this loss.
But for most of the land closed the hunters must blame themselves. The fact is that their reputation seems to get worse each year, and, as a consequence, fewer people want hunters on their land. Consider this sampling of hunting news from the past season: In Colorado kills of deer were reported up 41%, elk up 12% and hunters up 150%. In Utah a farmer was fatally shot through the abdomen sitting on his own front porch. In another Utah county a sheriff exonerated a hunter from killing his companion because the latter was wearing beige trousers, the color of a deer's hide. Twenty-two hunters shot each other in California, and 15 in New York State did the same. In Washington State a valuable horse was found shot, skinned and with the hindquarters removed, presumably by a novice hunter who thought he had gotten a whopper of a deer. Every such incident, whether fatal or just infuriating, brought more NO HUNTING and NO TRESPASSING Signs.
Perhaps the most shocking hunting crime of all was committed two seasons ago in New York State's Putnam County, only 70 miles from Manhattan. The caretaker of an estate, who was also a deputy game protector, caught two hunters trespassing on his posted land. He asked for their licenses and, turning his back on them, walked to his car. One of the man raised his gun and fired. The warden fell. Badly wounded but still conscious, he pleaded for his life, asking the men to take their licenses and go. One of them stepped forward, took the licenses, then shot the warden through the head. The killer and his companion were tracked down and arrested and at the trial were allowed to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. They received relatively light sentences.
To game wardens it appeared that the law considered their lives as expendable as that of the game. Farmers tended to feel the same way; and even though the Putnam County deer herds had grown to nuisance proportions, 90% of the land in the area was posted to hunters.
Into this hostile countryside the New York State Fish and Game Department, whose main job is to control wildlife populations and keep outdoorsmen happy, sent two of its best men, Warren McKeon and Michael Rodak, to see what could be done about reopening the land to hunters. McKeon is a slim, crew-cut professional with a B.A. from Cornell University. Rodak, a powerfully built, soft-spoken conservation aide with immense energy and a deceptively mild manner, is perhaps the only game warden in the country who refers to violators as "those gentlemen I found trespassing."
Their mission was not as hopeless as it might seem. McKeon and Rodak went in armed with a model piece of legislation, the New York Fish & Wildlife Management Act. This law was based in part on the experiences gained from Pennsylvania's Farm-Game cooperatives, a sprawling complex of 1,300,000 acres in which farmers agree not to post their land and hunters promise to behave themselves. But the New York act is much tighter and more progressive. To landowners it offers real protection and enforcement, based on local needs determined by a district board consisting of a farmer, a sportsman and an elected county official.
To get the program going, Rodak first had the deeds traced to each piece of property in the county so he would know the exact limits of each farmer's holdings. Then he moved in on the landowners, one by one. One of the most attractive inducements Rodak was able to offer was freedom from the time-consuming business of posting and patrolling the property. Heretofore, a landowner who wanted to keep hunters out had to post the land, also keep the signs in prime condition and apprehend and prosecute any violators himself. But, explained Rodak, if the farmer wanted to become a "cooperator," he could sign a five-year contract under which the Conservation Department received all hunting and fishing rights. In exchange the state would assume the burden of posting and maintaining signs and of apprehending and prosecuting violators.
Rodak went on to explain that all hunters would be required to enter the cooperative area through a single check point manned by a uniformed game protector. Here they would surrender their licenses and receive a detailed map of the land open to them. No hunting would be permitted within 500 feet of houses, barns and working areas. Each hunter would be required to park his car in a prescribed space so that the hunter density could be controlled precisely over the whole area. The cooperative would be patrolled by game protectors in cars with two-way radios. The landowner need only pick up his phone to receive immediate assistance. Furthermore, for any farmer who wanted to hunt his own land or who simply had a liking for wildlife, Rodak promised that men from the Conservation Department would work on the land to improve wildlife habitat. Such work would range from planting patches of sorghum and buckwheat for pheasant and grouse to constructing small wetland areas for wildfowl.
The first man Rodak persuaded to open up his land was John Kelley (see below), a dairy farmer who owns about 150 acres. Kelley's land supports deer, quail, grouse, pheasant and squirrel. Kelley himself is not a hunter. He kept his land posted "except to friends, and come hunting season I had more friends than a politician at election time." With Kelley signed up, Rodak went after the other farmers.
Over the next 10 weeks Rodak the salesman had signed up 90 landowners and Rodak the wildlife man had put together some 9,000 acres of good hunting land. On October 5, 1959 the Putnam County Cooperative Area opened its check station to the first hunters for a pheasant season. Six weeks later the deer season began, and last February the experiment closed out with a small-game season. The results were highly satisfactory for everybody. Over a period of 264 days, 4,308 hunters had taken 1,927 pieces of game, including 76 deer and 527 upland game birds. There were no accidents of any kind.
What impressed landowners most was the effective patrolling of their holdings. For example, when John Cassell, a retired businessman and himself a hunter, heard suspicious voices near his house, he jumped to the telephone. He was still standing with the receiver in his hand when a game protector knocked on his front door. "What the hell are you doing here?" the astonished Cassell asked. "I'm still talking to you on the phone." Actually, Cassell had been talking to the check-in station, which had called its radio cars, one of which happened to be passing Cassell's house.
Cassell's neighbors were so impressed by the program that, after the end of last season, 20 landowners came to the Conservation Department asking to be let in. Their property added 2,000 more acres to the Putnam cooperative; and with the 1960 deer season 10 weeks off, Rodak has a long waiting list of other former hunter-haters clamoring to sign up for the program.
Over the past year the Wildlife Act has been put to work in other counties, and the hunters of New York State have acquired almost 100,000 acres of good land, much of which was previously closed to them. If the program continues to be successful, it could well become the pattern for the future in all parts of the country where hunting is done on private land. Certainly the need for such a pattern is urgent. For as Leo Lawrence, a New York State legislator who helped to put across the model Wildlife Management Act, said not long ago, "Unless we solve the landowner-sportsmen problems, public hunting and fishing in America cannot survive."