My Turn: Regulators win, hunters lose in N.H. turkey hunting debate

For the Monitor
Published: 3/9/2019 12:10:01 AM

In approximately 44 states across the nation, hunters can report harvested game online or over the phone. This year, New Hampshire had a chance to join those ranks with the introduction of House Bill 322 – a bill that would create an online check system for reporting wild turkey harvests. But on Feb. 14, the N.H. House voted, 227-150, to kill the bill, consigning New Hampshire to a group of about six states that still require hunters to physically transport harvested game to in-person check stations.

Why did N.H. lawmakers decide to continue an antiquated process while the rest of the country is moving toward a streamlined, technological approach? Of course, N.H. Fish and Game needs the reports from hunters for accurate biological data collection, but this can be obtained electronically as well as physically.

If asked, proponents of the old-fashioned check stations say requiring hunters to present carcasses for inspection is the best way to catch violators – for instance, seeing if a deer was shot with a breach loading rifle during muzzle loading season. But there’s a couple of problems with that argument.

Poachers and criminals who intentionally violate hunting laws aren’t going to turn themselves in at check stations where officials can conveniently catch them red-handed. If check stations are the only antidote to rampant poaching, where is the evidence that this problem has ensued in the 44 states with online game checks? You won’t find it for one simple reason: The vast majority of hunters are ethical, law-abiding citizens who care deeply about the ecosystem and can be trusted to accurately report their harvests via any medium.

Another concern with using check stations to police hunters has nothing to do with hunting but relates to civil rights. Does the state requirement for hunters to present their game as potential evidence against themselves violate Article 15 of the N.H. Constitution? Like the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, Article 15 protects N.H. residents from self-incrimination. Article 15 specifically states that a citizen shall not be “compelled to accuse or furnish evidence against himself.” But that’s exactly why N.H. regulators want to keep the physical check stations. It requires hunters to “furnish evidence” against themselves if they’ve messed up in compliance with hunting regulations. Legal experts should consider whether this requirement is constitutional.

Beyond that, physical check stations create a myriad of extra burdens on hunters. Check stations tend to be 30 to 60 minutes away from hunting areas, so one to two hours of driving time has to be added to any successful hunt.

Worse, check stations have limited hours, especially around holidays, precisely when most hunters have time off to spend in the woods. The law always presents logistical challenges for late-afternoon hunters who may not get their game out of the woods and to the check station before close of business, and may need to work the next day. And backcountry hunts (where game needs to be processed in the field and packed out) are simply out of the question.

So, who decided to deny N.H. hunters access to the easy reporting system hunters in 44 other states enjoy? When the votes were counted on HB 322, it was 92 percent of Democrats who voted against this bill, while almost every Republican voted for it. This is troubling, because turkey hunting should not be a partisan issue in a pro-hunting, outdoors-enthused state like New Hampshire.

New Hampshire hunters deserve an answer from the lawmakers who opposed this bill en masse. Do our representatives know something about hunting the rest of the nation doesn’t? Or are N.H. Democrats pursuing a regulation-heavy approach that would be sharply out of place in the individualistic, liberty-minded culture of the “Live Free or Die” state?

In our current digital age, it’s only a matter of time before 100 percent of states move to an automated, online approach to game checking. New Hampshire missed the boat this year. Let’s not be the last state to get on board.

(Jordan Estrada lives in Merrimack.)

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