At odd times in recent years I've found myself dreaming of what it might be like to own exclusive printing and sales rights to NO TRESPASSING, NO HUNTING and VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs. It's certainly a big business, and a growing one. Here in Oregon—and elsewhere, I'm sure—such notices are everywhere these days, and though that fact means substantial profits for sign makers, ii also reflects a serious problem faced by hunters and landowners.
More people, more time, more guns, more hunters, more developed land and more property damage each year add up to more owners determined to keep hunters off their lands. You would have to look a long while to find a clearer example of an immovable force colliding with an irresistible object.
As politicians long ago learned, there are a great many citizens who refuse to be told what they may or may not do with their guns. Each fall armies of people dressed as hunters troop through fields and forests. When they confront the barbed-wire fences, locked gates and NO HUNTING signs of folks to whom property rights are sacred, the conflicts can be unpleasant or downright dangerous.
Last season, in Milton-Freewater. Ore., a rancher asked two elk hunters to leave his land because they did not ask his permission to use it. The rancher was badly beaten by the pair, and hospitalized for two weeks. Though local sportsmen's clubs offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the hunters, no info surfaced, so no arrests were made.
More often the landowner's complaints are of litter, broken fences, slaughtered livestock or vandalism. One farmer I know labels his animals before each deer season, painting cow, HORSE or PIG in huge letters across the sides of the appropriate beasts. Despite his efforts, some are still shot. Any target is likely to be riddled with bullet holes at the height of the hunting season.
In 1978, in Oregon's Crooked River Valley, a group of landowners became so infuriated at vandalism committed by trespassers that they called a meeting with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they got what they wanted—stiffer penalties. Now trespassing with a firearm carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail. In years past the penalty had been a maximum of 30 days and $250.
Hunters, however, swear it is a tiny minority that gives the rest of them a bad name. They will also tell you that many landowners won't even permit hunters to cross their property to get to public land to hunt. Because ranches and farms and other private property usually occupy the lowlands and foothills, and public lands are located on the steeper and economically less desirable slopes above, the public spots are often inaccessible except by crossing posted land. Hunters also claim that some ranchers not only declare their own holdings to be off limits, but also post the Bureau of Land Management acres that they rent for grazing. This is illegal, but what can a hunter do? To operate under such conditions he would need, at the very least, a good set of maps and a helicopter to discern the lands from which he is legally barred from those that are illegally posted.
So the charges and countercharges fly, hunting-license sales increase, and the amount of private land open to hunters shrinks at an alarming rate. Compounding the problem is the fact that the most desirable hunting areas—rural acreage near population centers—are most affected by the trend toward posting. Tens of thousands of city folks have discovered the pleasures of country living in recent years, and when they buy their places they almost always put up NO HUNTING signs. Very often they aren't natives of the area or even of the state, and this can cause increased resentment. What business does a retired restaurant owner from Chicago have telling a third-generation Oregonian where he can't go?
I used to hunt, and some of my best—and worst—memories of the outdoor life are associated with the sport. I know some fine men who love hunting above nearly everything, and I've also run across a number of dangerous fools. I was shot in the shoulder at a duck marsh one winter afternoon, and a few years ago as I stood in the sunlight in a clearing in the woods, a round from a deer rifle whistled by my ear. These are two reasons why I no longer hunt. Another is that each year it became harder and harder to know where to go.
I don't own a whole lot of land, but I know people who do and I try to sympathize with them. A great deal of strenuous effort goes into keeping up 80 or 100 or 1,000 acres, and a couple of trigger-happy, irresponsible hunters can destroy a year's worth of work in just a minute or two. Still, it seems to me there is little excuse for posting land used neither for ranching nor farming, but it happens all the time. On too many occasions I've knocked on a door to ask for hunting permission and ended up in a heated argument with a stone-faced man doing a mediocre John Wayne impersonation—a man whose primary joy in life seemed to be making someone else's day troublesome and unpleasant.
Once I asked a farmer if he would consider letting me hunt a field of bunchgrass and weeds for quail. His answer—delivered quietly and with a trace of a smile—was that if he ever saw me hunting in any of his fields, he'd shoot my dog, and he'd worry about what to do with me afterward. Later that same day another landowner explained that he posted his weeds and willow thickets because he loved birds and liked to think of his property as a sanctuary for them. It was a fairly convincing little speech and apparently true—to a point. I later learned that one of this bird lover's favorite pastimes was to sit on his back porch on fall evenings with a .22 rifle and shoot pheasants as they ventured into the half-acre patch of corn he planted to attract them. It's as difficult to generate sympathy for men like these as it is to feel sorry for some of the idiots whom the owners try to keep off their lands.
But something has to be done to protect the interests of both the careful hunter and the reasonable landholder. The problem is simple. Solutions won't be. The answers will have to come largely from state governments, even though neither sportsmen nor property owners appreciate state control, and game commissions have seldom been willing to offend anyone. Stiffer penalties for lawbreakers would help, but they'd be only a beginning. Tougher qualifications and increased fees for licenses could accomplish a great deal. A 1979 Oregon resident adult hunting license costs $7—far less than a golfer usually pays to play 18 holes. To qualify to buy one, you have to have resided in the state for half a year. A young person between the ages of 14 and 17 can purchase an upland game license for a mere $2, and a child 12 or 13 years of age does not have to pay at all. A hunter from just about any other country on earth would find those terms astoundingly generous or downright laughable.
But if would-be outdoorsmen had to pass a test of hunting knowledge and skills to qualify for a license and then were charged $25 or $50 for a permit, most of the opening-day drunks and road hunters would stay at home where they belong, and landowners' problems would be cut at least by half. Establishing reduced rates for the elderly and those who truly couldn't afford the more expensive license would pose no problem. Some of the added revenue from increased fees could go toward closer control of hunters in the field. Part could be earmarked as compensation for landowners who cooperate with the state by opening their properties and suffer property damage by hunters. Responsible outdoorsmen who report lawbreakers—including ranchers who illegally post government land—could be rewarded.
Americans like to think of hunting as a right, not a privilege. If it is a right under present conditions, it is quickly becoming a worthless one. The situation needs to be straightened out in a hurry. If it isn't, the good hunters, the real hunters, will quit the sport in frustration, and the sign makers will make an even greater profit.