Making the Rules
On a cold night in January what could be better than attending a public meeting on deer hunting? The Department of Conservation was holding the meeting to discuss potential deer regulation changes. As you would expect, the room in Piedmont was packed with a mix of deer hunters and onlookers.
A gentleman in a co-op cap and blue bibs sat quietly in the second row through more than two hours of dialogue. Finally he raised his hand. “Why can’t you use a .410 shotgun with a slug to hunt deer? You let people use a .40 caliber muzzleloader, and the 410 is a .41 caliber.”
I had heard a lot of ideas for change that evening. Some were just not feasible, some would require a lot of thought, discussions and number crunching, but this one was nothing but logical. The only reason a .410 slug was not allowed, I had to admit to him, was because nobody had thought to ask us to make it legal.
For most of my 30 years with the Department of Conservation I have been tied in one way or another to the process of setting hunting regulations. First, I was a biologist making hunting season recommendations, then for many years I was a supervisor of the biologists that made hunting season recommendations.
Our authority for enacting regulations is the foundation of the constitutional mandate that Missourians passed in 1936. That constitutional mandate formed a Conservation Commission and gave them the charge of “protecting and managing the fish, forests and wildlife of the state.” The Conservation Commission has always fulfilled this charge with the utmost seriousness.
And, any time the Commission limits personal choice through regulations they require good—no, very good—reasoning.
The logic and reasoning behind regulations usually fall into three categories.
Biological: Is a regulation needed to help manage the population?
An example would be daily or season harvest limits, or it could be a prohibition on harvest, such as the regulation we have protecting prairie chickens and other species of conservation concern.
Social: Would society find the action acceptable or necessary, and would hunters accept the regulation?
A cornerstone of conservation is the recognition that we must balance the needs of people and the needs of nature. The regulation allowing landowners and homeowners to protect their property from damage by wildlife is an example of blending these needs.
Another example of the role of social considerations in developing regulations is the “4-point rule” put in place in 2004 in 29 counties. This rule requires that deer hunters only take bucks with at least four points on one side of their rack.
The goal of the regulation is to improve both our ability to manage antlerless deer numbers and the age-structure of bucks in the population. But before any decision was made, we first had to know if hunters and farming landowners were willing to accept such a regulation. Were there other, more favorable, options we should consider?
Through public meetings and surveys we first took a “pulse check” of the people. Only after support was measured did we proceed with regulation recommendations. Even with the regulation in place, we have continued to assess hunter and landowner attitudes to see if changes are warranted.
Enforceable: Is the regulation able to be easily followed or understood by the hunter, and can it be enforced?
Can you imagine a regulation that requires a legal bow to cast an arrow at least 160 feet over a horizontal surface? Or that a legal round for deer hunting be required to have a muzzle velocity greater than 2,400 feet per second? How would a hunter be certain they were in compliance? How would an agent check these in the field?
Or what about requiring that a legal buck have a 17-inch spread? Can a hunter easily tell if a deer meets this requirement?
Usually all three concerns, biological, social and enforcement, come into play as a regulation develops.
I am often asked where does public input enter into the regulation equation? Who has or can have input? As you might imagine, public input comes in many ways, and balancing the interests of all and the interests of some is not always easy. The key is that we are always listening.
Missouri has more than 400,000 deer hunters. If we were to get letters or e-mails asking for a certain regulation change from 50 hunters, that would be a substantial number and it would get our attention. It would also raise the question, “How does the average hunter feel about the change?”
John Lewis, MDC’s former wild turkey biologist, my mentor and for many years my supervisor, used to ask me when a regulation change was being considered: “How does the one-gallus hunter feel about this?”
Now, for those of you decked out in the latest state-of-the-art hunting gear, the gallus is the strap holding up one’s bib overalls. John’s reference to the one-gallus hunter, the guy with a broken strap on a worn pair of bibs, was his way of asking how a change would impact the average hunter.
If you have ever been selected for a hunter survey you know how we check the pulse of the average hunter. We ask. Surveys give us the big picture about how people view regulations. E-mails, phone calls, letters, public meetings, one-on-one contacts, all the way to scheduling a hearing with the regulations committee, give people a chance to express their personal opinions. Personal opinions and group opinions are both vital.
We listen to what people say, and we let our biologists, conservation agents and other experts pick apart any new proposed rule. Only then does a recommendation take form. But, now what happens? Who makes the final call?
Essentially, Missourians get that option. The system our citizens put in place in 1936 to “protect and manage the forest, fish and wildlife of the state” ensures that the conservation commissioners, four citizens asked to serve six-year terms by Missouri’s governor, make the final call.
The Conservation Commission reviews and takes action on regulation recommendations at their monthly meetings. The recommendations must first be approved by the Department’s Regulations Committee and our director, but the Commission’s four citizens are charged with making the final decision.
As was the case with the gentleman from the Piedmont area (I never got his name), ideas for regulation changes often come from our citizens, and in the end it is four citizens who approve or disapprove changes. In between, as it should be, are a lot of biology, substantial social science, questions of enforceability and many, many, many opinions.
So the next time you have an idea for a regulation don’t be shy. Sometimes all it takes is the willingness to ask.
The four current commissioners are charged with making the final decision regarding all Wildlife Code regulations. To contact the commissioners with your comments, write to Conservation Commission, MDC, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.
Commissioner Don Johnson seldom fishes alone. “When I go fishing,” he said, “I always try to take a young person or somebody else with me and give them the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.”
Johnson, who works as human resources vice president for Cequel III Communications in St. Louis, said he mostly casts big plugs for muskies and brings along a cradle to help him release the big fish without harming them. His biggest muskie, caught when he lived in Pennsylvania, was 54 inches long and weighed 52 pounds. He had that one mounted.
He also loves archery, both target archery and bowhunting. “I have yet to introduce anybody to archery who once they tried it didn’t go, ‘Oh, that’s fun!’” Johnson said.
Archery is easy, he said, but shooting well requires developing the kind of discipline that inevitably brings success to other parts of life. To introduce kids to the benefits of archery, Johnson has helped introduce the National Archery in the Schools Program to Missouri schools.
Johnson, who stepped down from his position as president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri when he was named a conservation commissioner, said Missouri is fortunate in having a conservation commission that takes into account the views of sportspeople and their organizations.
“The thing I like most about it,” he said, “is that we’re willing to listen to all sides on the issues, and we’re willing to change where it’s warranted.”
William F. “Chip” McGeehan
“No place called home,” is how Commissioner William F. “Chip” McGeehan of Marshfield describes his roots. “My dad was in the Air Force,” he said, “and I attended 13 different schools—four different high schools.” He graduated from Jefferson City High School in 1968.
McGeehan’s dad started taking him hunting and fishing when he was 5- or 6-years-old. “I not only enjoyed hunting and fishing, but I also enjoyed the days with my father,” he said.
McGeehan went on to obtain a degree in fisheries and wildlife management from Southwest Missouri State University. During his college years, he worked summers as a fisheries assistant with the Conservation Department.
Now a businessman and a rancher (150 head of bison), he continues to enjoy the outdoors. His favorite fish is a catfish, his favorite game animal is a deer, and his favorite outdoor activity is bowhunting for turkeys or deer.
As a conservation commissioner, McGeehan said he tries to blend the recommendations of biologists regarding our resources with the human element, the needs of the people of Missouri. To assist him in his decision-making, he said “I take every opportunity to get out in the community to listen to the comments and opinions and suggestions from the ultimate users, the consumptive users of conservation.”
You may have bought sweet corn or asparagus grown by Conservation Commissioner Lowell Mohler. He and his wife farm 200 acres near Jefferson City and supervise a farming operation in Holt County.
“My background is all agriculture,” Mohler said. He hasn’t just grown crops, however. His ties to agriculture include 26 years with the Missouri Farm Bureau and three years as head of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Mohler loves to hunt ducks. Like many rural youths, he said he was “born and raised” fishing and hunting. “They’re my favorite things to do,” he said. “I started at 6 years old and I’m 71 now, so I’ve been at it a long time.”
He likes the way the Conservation Department is reaching out to schools and creating youth hunting opportunities. “We’re doing a lot of things for young people,” he said, “but we have to keep working at it because there’s so much competition for their time today.”
Mohler’s background in farming and agriculture influences his perspective on conservation. He said his personal goal is to make sure agricultural interests and conservation work together, rather than work against each other.
“A lot of folks that design regulations have never been on a farm,” he said. “What I bring to the table is some balance as to what will work and what won’t work, and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense.”
Becky Plattner, the elected presiding commissioner of Saline County, brings to the Conservation Commission the ability to work both governmental and physical landscapes.
Plattner was raised on a hog farm until she was 12. She’s been heavily involved in farming ever since, including as a FFA volunteer and honorary member, and in the family business of custom farming, which means farming other peoples’ land, as well as their own. She said every bit of land they work has some kind of conservation partnership involved.
Plattner lives in Grand Pass, close enough to the bottoms to hear frogs calling at night. She remembers hunting bullfrogs as a child. “That was what we did,” she said. “We went fishing, and frog hunting was part of it. I used a flashlight and caught them by hand—no gig for me!”
She relishes the Department’s nature centers. “I’ve taken my daughters and other children to them,” she said. “It’s wonderful that these are available to the public. It shows that conservation has something for everyone—adults, children and communities. I think we have to take care of these gifts.”
Plattner hopes her county government background will add a dimension to the Conservation Commission. “I can work with communities and political entities because I understand their perspective,” she said. “I come with an open mind. My philosophy is, ‘What can we do? Let’s work together.’”