Think back to your hunter safety class. Your instructor taught about harvest limits, season dates, orange vests, legal weapons and shooting hours. You might remember being tested on these topics, but you might not understand why.
These topics, among others, are part of the typical hunting regulations developed by state wildlife agencies. Hunting regulations are rules people must know, understand and abide by when they’re participating in outdoor recreational activities. They were created by legislators and state wildlife agencies decades ago and are enforced by conservation officers, aka game wardens.
But why, exactly, are these laws important for both wildlife and bowhunters? Let’s find out.
“To really understand what regulations are, and why they’re beneficial, it’s important to know some history of wildlife law in the United States,” said Gary Jagodzinski, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent.
If you’re up for an interesting read, check out “The History of Wildlife Conservation and Research in the United States – and Implications for the Future,” by Robert D. Brown.
In the article, Brown explains that market hunting in the 1800s decimated bird and wild game populations. Hunters, anglers and trappers killed animals to sell for fur, food or feathers. People believed they owned the wildlife on their property, and therefore, it was their right to take it. That mentality led to massive wildlife population declines in deer, elk, pronghorn and buffalo herds, as well as bears, turkeys, swans and others. In fact, some species, such as the passenger pigeon, were hunted to extinction.
People started recognizing the harmful impacts of unregulated hunting and private wildlife ownership. Congress passed a federal law in 1900 called The Lacey Act, which protected game and prohibited the shipment of illegally taken animals across state lines. Afterward, many laws and regulations were passed to fund and protect America’s natural resources. (View the conservation in America timeline on the USFWS website.)
Today we benefit from the efforts to protect wildlife and keep humans safe. Edward McCann, a conservation warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the purpose of today’s regulations is the same, however, the goals and objectives are different.
For example, in the early 1900s, only 50,000 elk remained in our country. Today we have about 1 million elk. Elk tags were limited by state agencies to allow elk to reproduce and regrow their population numbers. With elk herd numbers back on track, more elk tags are given out each year, but we’re facing new problems.
Unfortunately, chronic wasting disease – a contagious, always-fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose – is increasing nationwide and threatening elk populations. Wildlife agencies in states without CWD are focused on prevention. Many have adopted new regulations that forbid feeding or baiting wild cervids, prohibit using urine-based scent products, or ban people from moving live animals or carcasses across state borders to stop the spread of the disease.
As issues and problems among wildlife and Americans adapt, so must the regulations. Most often, regulations are created or changed based on research, science and management best practice. And no one knows these regulations better than the people who enforce them.
Conservation officers are employees of state or federal fish and wildlife agencies. These individuals work with hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts to protect fish, wildlife and their habitats. They enforce hunting, fishing and boating regulations like a police officer enforces theft charges, traffic violations and laws regarding criminal activities.
However, much like police officers, wardens can’t be everywhere at once. It’s your responsibility to make ethical decisions and abide by local, state and federal hunting rules and regulations wherever you hunt.
“In most sports you have referees,” said Corporal Ben Payne, a conservation warden for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “In hunting, there are no referees. The individual hunter must ethically police themselves and others on all hunting regulations.”
Know Before You Go
To do your part, Payne suggests hunters read all state game laws and area-specific regulations before they hunt because they might differ between private land, public land or wildlife management areas.
For example, hunters often can’t employ screw-in climbing steps to reach treestands on public lands. You might be required to put your name and contact information on treestands and ground blinds used on public lands. Or you might also need special tags or access permits to bowhunt certain areas.
Other important regulations taught in a hunter-education course include bag limits (how many animals you’re allowed to harvest), using the appropriate weapon for a given hunting season, hunting only when possessing a valid tag or license, and legally documenting a harvest when required. Failure to follow a state or jurisdiction’s regulations might trigger fines, penalties, license suspensions or even jail.
“As a hunter and consumer of our natural resources, it is vitally important that we understand the rules,” Jagodzinski said. “These rules and their enforcement is really at the centerpiece of conservation management today. The ownership of wildlife resides with the states and we are all provided an equal opportunity to hunt, fish, trap, collect or view our natural resources, granted we follow the rules designed to ensure we will always have this opportunity.”
You can find your state agency’s hunting regulations in several places, including:
- Your state agency’s website;
- Pamphlets where most hunting and fishing license are sold, like a local archery shop;
- Your state agency’s mobile app (if it has one);
- At a local or regional state agency office.
And remember, if you have a question or need a regulation clarification, the answer is only a phone call away. Your state agency or a local game warden will be happy to assist. This level of responsibility makes you an excellent steward of our natural resources.
“Be respectful of the resources you harvest,” Jagodzinski said. “Each tree you cut, fish you hook, or deer you shoot is an individual never to be exactly replaced. With proper management, enforcement and compliance wildlife will provide the same excitement, nourishment and wonder you experienced for generations to come.”
Stay tuned for a future article regarding what to do if you catch a poacher or accidentally break the law. Hint: Call an anonymous poacher hotline or turn yourself in to a conservation officer. Honesty will work in your favor, trust us.