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'Mandatory' reporting system needs help

Oregon's hunters are proving in loud terms that it will take a big carrot or a big stick to coax them into reporting their successes, or lack thereof, in the field each year.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists are mulling whether to add incentives or penalties — or both — to its year-old system that requires hunters to report their hunting days and successes for big-game and turkeys.

For the past year, "mandatory" has apparently meant "voluntary" to most hunters, maybe because the system contains no punishments for ignoring it or enticements to comply.

The result is that only 10 percent of those hunting black-tailed bucks during last year's general season in Western Oregon bothered to comply, with similarly dismal rates in most other hunts.

That makes the whole point of mandatory reporting — providing biologists with information needed to help craft seasons and tag offerings — nearly worthless.

It also creates the kind of I-told-you-so parents tell toddlers just after the kid sticks his finger in the fan.

Without a carrot or a stick, that mule ain't moving.

"You're always hopeful, but we're not surprised it went this way," says Tom Thornton, the ODFW's game program manager. "But for us to move forward with penalties or incentives, we had to have some information. We have to justify ramping up in order to get the compliance we need."

That ramping up begins this week as agency leaders hold public meetings in the Rogue Valley and across Oregon to discuss 2009 big-game tag numbers and changes to the 2010 hunting regulations.

Public meetings are scheduled tonight in Grants Pass and May 14 in Medford, in conjunction with local chapter meetings of the Oregon Hunters Association.

The meetings will include presentations about this fall's statewide big-game tags, which locally remain largely unchanged. The May 15 deadline for tag applications also remains unchanged.

The biggest local switch comes in 2010, when the agency has proposed to add 10-tag youth elk hunts in the East Evans Creek and Chetco units to run Aug. 1 through Dec. 31.

The hunts are similar to the August-through-March youth hunt now held in the Rogue Unit.

The big discussion, however, will be whether putting some bite in the mandatory-reporting program should be done with a sweet tooth or a fang.

One possible incentive is rewarding hunters who report their efforts by a cut-off date. Those hunters could be entered into a drawing for prizes, such as gift certificates to sporting-goods retailers, free hunting licenses and special tags.

The deadlines would be something like Jan. 31 for hunts that end on or before Dec. 31, and 15 days after hunts that end in January through March.

The new deadlines could be adopted by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is scheduled to consider them at its October meeting.

But giving away tags or licenses would require bills passed through the Oregon Legislature. None are before the current legislature. The next session is in 2011, so those changes couldn't go into effect until 2012 — at the earliest.

Possible penalties bandied within ODFW hallways include banning hunters from buying tags or applying for hunts if they fail to complete a survey for any tag they bought the previous year.

Those hunters could then buy back into the system, but with a penalty. In Washington, the buy-back is $10. In Nevada, it's $50.

"Those are the extreme ends of the ranges that we know of," Thornton says.

But that, too, would require legislative approval.

"We can't do anything with fees without the legislature's approval," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "So we're hosed, for now."

The lack of volunteerism is nothing new.

For years, bear hunters had a mandatory tooth check-in and were told that program would go mandatory if return rates remained below 30 percent. They did, so the tooth check-in went mandatory in 2008.

The results? A compliance rate of up to 98 percent.

Idaho and Washington marched this same path and both ended up with penalty-heavy programs after first trying — and failing — at using voluntary compliance and then incentives for their mandatory reporting programs.

Oregon's hunters appear prepared to repeat the past.

So far, they certainly haven't learned from it.

"We need to do something," Thornton says. "If we try incentives first to see if it works or to demonstrate that it doesn't work, either way we need to start moving down the road."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.