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Bill puts teeth into hunter reporting program

Like mouthy teenagers who thumb their noses at school rules, Oregon's hunting public is about to discover that not getting with the program could be costly.

State wildlife biologists are poised to fix the misnomer known as "mandatory reporting of hunter success" by actually making it mandatory — for the first time since the program started three years ago.

They have asked the Oregon Legislature to allow them to enact a penalty of up to $50 for hunters who flout the mandatory reporting program before the offending Oregonian can get his or her next hunting license.

The request, which comes in the form of House Bill 2125, represents the last effort to get compliance after asking nicely and then dangling a juicy carrot failed miserably to get the hunter-success data needed to make big-game population models more reliable.

When the program began in 2008, hunters were asked to comply, and only one in 10 filled out the required surveys.

Then last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife gave out the equivalent of Governor's Tags for big-game hunts in drawings among hunters who filled out the surveys.

But even the spectre of winning a tag equal to one that some rich guy paid $35,000 for in an auction was only good enough to coax barely more than one-third of Oregon's roughly 283,000 hunters to meet the requirements.

So now the Legislature has been asked to put a stick in the hands of ODFW biologists in hopes that the time-honored parenting technique — the threat — will get the recalcitrants to play nice like they're supposed to.

"To get support for a penalty, we needed to show a history that the carrot — being nice — wasn't getting us there," says Tom Thornton, ODFW's game program manager. "I think it's pretty well showing us that it's not getting us there.

"It's really pretty fundamental," he says.

So is HB 2125.

If passed, the bill would allow the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to set the penalty anywhere from zero to $50.

The program is similar to ones in other states that first tried carrots before relying on sticks for their reporting rules. Washington charges stragglers $10, while Nevada went behind the woodshed and cut a $50 switch for its reporting malingerers.

You might be a bit surprised at who is supporting this bill.

"We've fought for years for mandatory reporting," says Fred Craig, president of the 12,800-member Oregon Hunters Association, the largest lobbying group of its ilk in the state. "Why? Because we need it."

That's because mandatory reporting provides needed data that fuels the computer modeling of animal populations that largely determine how big-game animals and hunters are managed in Oregon.

The black-tailed deer plan is the most obvious.

The plan uses what's called a sex-age-kill model to determine population sizes and create data on the range of when and how blacktails die.

Mandatory reporting of hunting success supplies the sex of the deer killed, as well as when and where the animals were shot. A tooth extracted from the dead deer is used to determine the age of the animal at its death.

Not only are the numbers of hunters reporting too low for optimal research results, even the breakdown of hunters who do report is skewed. It turns out that a higher percentage of successful hunters are reporting their kills than unsuccessful hunters.

Back-up telephone surveys show that an unnaturally high group of the 37 percent of hunters participating in mandatory reporting now are those filling tags.

"At the level of the reporting now, we can still see the positive bias," Thornton says.

There is no exact percentage of participation needed to make models like this hum, Thornton says.

Useful participation differs based on hunter success rate, tag numbers and other factors, so the exact goals for participation are something of a moving target.

It's not like ODFW has made mandatory reporting some bureaucratic nightmare.

Hunts occurring between Jan. 1 and March 31 have an April 15 deadline so that data can be used to craft the next year's hunts when they go before the commission in June.

Spring bear and turkey hunters have a June 30 deadline.

The biggie comes Jan. 31, for all the hunts running Aug. 1 through Dec. 31 — and that's the vast majority of deer, elk, bear and pronghorn hunts.

Hunters can report via the Internet or telephone.

Craig says the OHA rank and file remains somewhat split over the penalty and the program in general.

Some hunters are opposed to reporting "because they don't want to tell the government anything," Craig says.

But buck-hunters need to know that their hunts and the health of the animals depends upon their participation.

And just because it's called disposable income doesn't mean hunters should flush another $50 or so down the toilet just so they don't have to play nice and report their success and lack thereof.

"Without reporting, the model doesn't work," Craig says. "This will control virtually every aspect of the plan. This is very important to us."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.