August 23, 2012

Decline in out-of-state hunters hits local economy

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

A significant decline in hunters coming to Maine from other states is having a far-reaching economic impact, from state agencies to small businesses in rural areas.

While sales of hunting licenses rise nationally, the decline in Maine is causing a loss of revenue for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and income for sporting camps and hunting guides.

It also is cutting into business in rural towns where traditional outdoor sports are an integral part of the culture and economy.

Sportsmen, guides, lawmakers and officials in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife point to the struggling deer herd as the reason for the drop in license sales.

Last year, 9,000 fewer out-of-state hunters came to Maine than five years ago, when 35,301 non-residents bought licenses here, according to the department. That year, non-residents accounted for 17 percent of Maine's 209,284 licensed hunters, according to the state.

Hunters help to bring as much as $241 million to Maine, including $30 million from non-resident hunters, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The decline in out-of-state hunters caused a loss of $1.2 million in license fees for the state from 2006 through 2011, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Bob Kwap of Bridgeton, N.J., who came to hunt here for many of the past 40 years, stopped traveling to northern Maine to hunt when he stopped seeing deer. The trips to Fish River Lodge on Eagle Lake stopped for him and his hunting party, and turned into hunting trips to Pennsylvania.

"We don't care if we get a deer, but you want to see deer or at least deer tracks. Seems like they weren't there anymore," Kwap said. "We don't know the reasons why. But now we go to Pennsylvania. They're not big deer like up in Maine, but at least you see deer during the week."

Economic impact

The economic impact from the loss of hunters like Kwap has been felt across northern Maine.

Guides such as Tenley Bennett, who owns Fish River Lodge at the northern tip of Maine, say the deer herd's decline four years ago caused a dramatic drop in out-of-state hunters booking trips.

"The last time we had 40 hunters in camp was in 2007. Now we're down to six," Bennett said. "The loss happened so fast. They came from as far away as Pennsylvania and spent money on lodging, meals, licenses, gas and guiding. But they came and weren't seeing deer. ... Now, I'm seeing sporting camps in decline. Most of them are on the market."

For guides statewide, the loss of deer in Maine is costly.

"There is a lot of frustration in the industry," said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. "The guides sort of feel abandoned. It's a competitive market. We're not competitive. When you don't have deer, that's problematic."

In some instances, guides are simply out of work during deer season.

Igor Sikorsky at The Bradford Camps in the North Woods said the decline in non-resident deer hunters last year led him to close in November for the first time in 17 years. This year he will close early again and lay off workers in November.

"I can't stay open for four hunters," Sikorsky said. "We closed last year for the first time in our history just because the number of hunters have dwindled. Most of our deer hunters are from out of state, because resident deer hunters tend to go to their own camps."

Out-of-staters staying away

While Maine is losing out-of-state hunters, license sales have risen 9 percent nationally in the past six years, according a survey released this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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