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Mandatory reporting bill wallows in Salem

A bill designed to put some teeth into the state's mandatory reporting law for hunters is getting some unwanted dentistry work from Oregon legislators who would prefer the state's lead dog in big-game management — the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — bark politely and have no bite.

House Bill 2125, which would allow fines of up to $50 for hunters thumbing their noses at the three-year-old requirement to provide information about the past season's big-game hunts, is wallowing in committee and at risk of dying a quiet death.

After asking hunters nicely for the data — and even dangling incentives for doing so — failed miserably since 2008, supporters say the bill represents the last effort to coax hunters into providing data that state game managers say they need.

Voluntary reporting failed in other Western states, as well, so they have instituted fines for hunters who blow it off. That's partly why state wildlife biologists and Oregon's largest hunting lobby are staunchly behind the fines.

But some legislators simply don't want government sticking its hands into Oregonians' pockets, even if it amounts to little more than chump-change that can easily be averted.

"We haven't given up on it, but there is some angst over charging folks money for not reporting, versus trying to increase voluntary compliance," says Ron Anglin, Wildlife Division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"People just hate the idea of mandatory reporting, and we're getting some push-back on it," Anglin says.

One of those pushing the strongest and loudest is Rep. Sal Esquivel. The Medford Republican and former hunter says he never heard of the mandatory reporting bill before it showed up in his Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He doesn't like the way the survey seems to work, and he believes it can be done better — such as having store clerks do the survey for hunters when they buy their license.

There's no reason to sneak a fine on a guy buying his deer license in August just because he missed a reporting date in January — one he might not even know about, Esquivel says.

"Most people wouldn't even know they've made an error until they're fined," Esquivel says. "I wouldn't mind seeing a mandatory punishment if people were educated and knew about it."

But ODFW biologists believe hunters have had plenty of time to learn about the program and that their survey is fine — as long as hunters do it. Moreover, the bill seeks only the potential fine and doesn't ask for input on whether to overhaul the reporting program.

Washington has a $10 fine for failing to report hunter success, and that seems not to work, Anglin says. Nevada threatens a $50 fine for ignoring the survey, "and that works real well," Anglin says.

Real well, as in getting data to fuel Nevada's computer models that largely determine how big-game animals and hunters are managed there.

Oregon biologists drool over Nevada's data cache, not the extra cash.

"Frankly, I hope we never make a dime off it, that people just report and don't have to pay," Anglin says. And it could cost hunters far more money to stiff-arm the penalty.

So far, about 40 percent of Oregon's big-game hunters have complied this year — far too few to make population data models work.

Anglin says the agency is leery about going back to its old telephone surveys for the information. A survey that gets about 80 percent of the needed data would cost about $200,000 a year. Getting to 90 percent would double that cost.

That's $400,000 a year — which isn't currently available in ODFW's proposed budget — just so recalcitrant hunters can stay that way.

"There's no money to do it," Anglin says. "We'd have to cut programs."

Esquivel says what the ODFW has here is a failure to communicate — with legislators about what this mandatory reporting program with a fine is all about and with hunters about all the consequences of ignoring it.

Esquivel says he will bring ODFW leaders and the OHA's lobbyist into his office later this session to figure out a way to solve the mandatory part of the mandatory reporting program, with or without a potential fine.

"We'll hash this thing out," Esquivel says.

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