Commission Approves New Incentives to Open Private Lands to Hunting

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A new, three-part strategy to encourage private landowners to open their lands to hunting won unanimous approval by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting here Nov. 18-19.

Concerned about the steady loss of private lands open to hunting in Washington state, commissioners adopted a policy that provides new incentives for timber companies and other landowners to open their gates to hunters. It also imposes tougher penalties on hunters who take game from private lands without permission.

Specifically, the new hunter-access policy will:

* Authorize the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to provide incentives to landowners to open lands the department considers especially important in maintaining hunting opportunities. Implementation of this provision is subject to legislative approval of a $5 surcharge on hunting licenses.

* Allow landowners under contract with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to sell a certain number of permits to hunters, provided they open their lands to other randomly-drawn, licensed hunters.

* Subject hunters who take game without permission from lands enrolled in the new hunting-access program to the same penalties imposed on those who take game out of season. For poaching big-game species such as deer and elk, penalties will run as high as $5,000 and a year in jail.

“We recognize that landowners who allow hunting on their lands can incur significant costs for everything from security to litter control,” said Commission Chairman Ron Ozment. “This new policy is designed to help them meet those costs and provide them with other incentives to open their gates to hunters.”

If the state Legislature approves the $5 license surcharge next year, the department will also be able to expand the access program into western Washington and provide more signs, gates, parking areas and enforcement on private lands open to hunting, said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager.

“More than half of Washington’s land base is now in private ownership,” Ware said. “We have to reach out to private landowners if we want to maintain hunting opportunities in this state.”

In other action, the commission approved salvage logging in the Wooten Wildlife Area in the aftermath of last summer’s School Fire, and heard public testimony on changes proposed by WDFW and the public to the state’s sport-fishing rules.

The nine-member commission, which sets policy for WDFW, is scheduled to take action on a 2006 sport-fishing rules package at its Feb. 10-11 meeting in Olympia.

In addition, WDFW resource managers briefed commission members on a variety of topics, including:

* Interceptions of returning Puget Sound chinook salmon by Canadian trollers off the west coast of Vancouver Island;

* The status of coastal groundfish and recent actions to protect fish habitat and rebuild over-fished rockfish species;

* The results of a WDFW field study conducted last summer at two boat ramps in Puget Sound. The field study was aimed at gauging the validity of phone surveys used to determine the recreational crab catch.

WDFW conducted the crab field study in response to crabbers’ concerns that the phone surveys used to measure the recreational crab catch are inaccurate, said Annette Hoffmann, a biometrician for the department.

In the initial test, WDFW counted crab landed at two busy boat ramps in north Puget Sound and compared those totals to catch numbers reported in phone surveys during the same period – with mixed results.

At the Cornet Bay ramp, WDFW hand-counted 11,710 landed crab, compared to 15,030 reported in the phone survey. At the Everett Bay ramp, 45,500 crab were counted compared to 28,680 crab reported in the phone survey.

“These results are inconclusive,” said Jeff Koenings, WDFW director. “If anything, the dockside survey suggests we may be underestimating the catch. Getting an accurate count of the crab catch is an important– and difficult– proposition, and we clearly need to continue this effort to verify our estimates until we get some clear answers.

“Outside of allocation issues, my biological concern is that the counted crab data suggests that the actual harvest is higher than indicated by the phone survey. If this is real, we may well be on the way to depleting crab in high-use areas.”

Koenings said the department will continue to take creel samples over the next two years to determine the accuracy of the phone surveys.