For 147 years, my family has owned farm land in Leavenworth County. We own the fields of rich, black soil and the grain they produce. We own the tall, Ozark-like timbered ridges and the 12-acre lake.
But we have never owned the wildlife that roams our property. Like the water that flows through in the stream, the deer, turkeys and assorted wildlife are free-roaming, They are not ours, nor should they ever be.
That America’s wildlife belongs to the public is a cornerstone for sound, widespread wildlife management. But now in the Kansas senate, House Bill 2538 could be the first step toward making wild animals the possessions of landowners by making illegally-hunted animals the property of the owner of the land where they were poached.
It sounds harmless enough at first, but I see a complicated can of copperheads Kansas shouldn’t open. It could be the first step toward the “it’s on my property, it’s my deer, my rules,” philosophy some selfish landowners have been trying get into law for years. It could also create a system that’s unfair to Kansas hunters, game wardens and others.
I promise it would also be a huge benefit to poachers in some cases.
(Though the bill, passed by the House and currently in the senate’s Natural Resources Committee, says “illegally-hunted wildlife,” it is basically talking about deer, particularly antlered bucks. Currently, by legislative regulation, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is given the antlers from poached animals for educational purposes or to sell at auction. The proceeds go to support wildlife law enforcement programs. Some states destroy confiscated antlers. Others cut them into small pieces and then sell them.)
• Passage of a bill that states a poached animal belongs to the landowner where it was killed could be the first step toward more controlled privatization of wildlife. Next steps could include landowners setting their own seasons and legal means of kills on their lands, issuing special permits for big-game hunting on their lands and/or selling wild game meat and live-trapped animals caught on their lands. All of which are currently illegal and against proven wildlife management.
• As if they aren’t already overworked, passage of the bill would put more strain on game wardens. A big problem can be simply locating owners of a property. And since the bill technically says “illegal wildlife,” what is the game warden to do with the illegal pheasants, doves, geese, deer or other carcasses until the landowner is found?, Do they field-dress it and take it to a locker, or store the smaller game in their freezer at home? Are they to transport the illegal animal to the landowner, who may be several states away?
Also, who gets the poached animal if there are several names on a deed? Some proponents push the bill as a way to “repay” landowners for feeding the wildlife, but what about when the landowner rents the farming to someone else? Or maybe the antlers should go to a person leasing the ground for hunting, and maybe has also invested heavily in the food plots and sanctuaries that kept the buck on that farm, and helped it grow to trophy sizes.
And it seems that anytime antlers are involved, especially those large enough to be worth several thousand dollars, things can get complicated and competitive. For instance, what might happen if a huge buck is shot on one property but dies on another? There could also be some hard feelings if a buck is shot on one property, though it’s spent far more time on another, where the landowners were working to provide food and habitat so it could grow huge.
• While not the intent, passage of the bill could benefit poaching several ways. For one, a landowner could shoot a buck out of season, or at night, let it lay, call a game warden after a few days and be free when awarded the antlers. And what’s to keep a landowner from giving or selling a trophy rack back to the poacher? Through the years, I’ve had several landowners encourage me to kill a buck out of season, use a centerfire rifle during muzzleloader season or shoot from a vehicle. I have no doubt they would’ve given me any rack I had confiscated for the illegal hunting methods on their lands.
And I can think of one important time when it probably would have happened.
About 15 years ago, a man from Colorado accepted an invitation to hunt a relative’s ranch in southwest Kansas. He didn’t have a permit, and his relative knew he didn’t but encouraged him to hunt anyway.
The Coloradan shot a whitetail that netted 199 2/8 typical inches. According to Boone & Crockett, it’s the largest typical buck killed in Kansas and one of the top 20 in the world. He got caught, paid a fine and had the antlers confiscated. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.
Had HB 2538 been in effect, I have no doubt the landowner/relative would have given the antlers right back to the poacher. Today, they could have been hanging in his house or he could have sold the antlers for about $10,000.
There’s no justice putting illegal goods back into the hands of the criminal who has broken a law. I promise, HB 2538 will do that for some in the future.