Michael Pearce

Changing times afield

Probably nothing has changed the face of Kansas hunting as much as allowing out-of-state visitors to hunt our deer.

It has brought many millions of dollars to the state.

It has also left many Kansas hunters scrambling for places to hunt and fearing for the health of the deer herd and the future of hunting in the state.

The revenue, and consternation, has only intensified since 615 out-of-staters visited to hunt in 1994. This year, more than 21,000 are expected as legislative mandate says enough permits must be issued to meet visitor demand.

The number of permits offered has more than doubled in the past five years.

Here's a look at the impact non-resident deer hunting has brought to Kansas.

Big Buck$

According to Southwick Associates, a firm that tracks the economic impact of hunting and fishing in America, hunters from out of state were responsible for adding more than $140 million to the Kansas economy in 2006. The figure would now be substantially higher.

Hunters wanting to up their odds for a trophy routinely pay $4,000 for fully-guided hunts. Some top-end operations charge more than $8,000.

Much of that money spreads through rural economies, many of which have been stressed for decades.

Landowners often get $5 to $10 or more per acre to lease their lands for hunting. To some, hunting revenue is as depended upon as much as crop and cattle incomes.

Millions are also spent paying local guides, plus eating and lodging establishments.

Visitors' deer permits have become a major source of income for Wildlife and Parks. Last year, the more than $5 million in out-of-state deer permit sales made up about 26 percent of Wildlife and Parks wildlife fee fund incomes.

That's about a 300-percent increase in the past five years. And it's not like the agency's ever been rolling in dough.

Mix in the sales of regular non-resident hunting licenses and it jumps to about 65 percent of wildlife revenue.

Keith Sexson, Wildlife and Parks assistant secretary, said non-resident fees pay a major portion of many popular programs many residents use.

The 1 million-plus acre Walk In Hunting Area program has benefited greatly from non-resident funds. Other programs designed to educate and create more hunting opportunities have also grown.

Sexson said that since out-of-state hunters will pay $322 for a permit, which is about 10 times the amount charged residents, deer permit fees haven't gone up for Kansas hunters in several years. Kansans already pay some of the highest prices for deer permits in the country.

Herd impact

Kansas' annual deer kill has remained fairly constant after falling from a spike about nine years ago, when multiple game tags were first issued.

The newness of it quickly wore off.

Kansas' deer population continues to have hot and cold spots. Out of state deer hunters probably have minimal impact on overall numbers.

Their impact on trophy deer, however, is highly debated.

Some Kansans have been saying the sky is falling on trophy deer populations since the first non-resident season. But Kansas still produced some of the best trophy hunting in the nation.

Would that change?

Sexson said KDWP surveys show Kansas still has a good percentage of trophy bucks.

Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett clubs are still getting plenty of entries. Judging from photos circulating the Internet, great bucks continue to be shot.

Some claim that's only because we have more hunters and it won't be long until the state's trophy potential is hurt drastically.

Hunting access

As numbers of visiting deer hunters have increased, so has competition for good hunting grounds.

Leasing annually becomes more prevalent as outfitters and hunters — from inside and outside Kansas — pay for access.

Likewise, more lands are being purchased by hunters wanting to insure they have a place to go.

There's also justified concern the growing difficulty in finding a place to hunt, and increased visitors' permits, has lead to more trespassing and poaching problems.

It's not like any of this came as a surprise. Commercialization in hunting has been spreading across the nation for decades.

Kansas was one of the last states to be consumed and leasing was growing in popularity even before the first non-resident season.

Now difficulty in accessing good deer lands is the most common complaint heard from Kansas hunters.

Kansas ranks near the bottom for public hunting lands, complicating the situation. Complaints of public area overcrowding by resident and non-resident hunters grow annually.

All is not lost for Kansans refusing to hang up their rifles or bows. Many have gone to creative ways to access private land. Some have traded labor for hunting. Others guide paying hunters on the land in exchange for their own hunting rights.

I've met many middle-class hunters who have scrimped and saved for years to buy their own place.

Some, though, have simply given up the sport rather than expend the energy or money needed to find good hunting.

Wildlife and Parks and every hunting-based sporting group is working hard to get more kids into hunting. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for budding hunters to get involved because of access issues.

On many leased lands, even family members aren't allowed to hunt. This fall I wrote an article about a teen who only had one day to hunt his grandfather's ranch. Paying hunters had it the rest of the year.

But I can cast no stones at someone wanting to hunt in another state. Nor can I blame a landowner for reaping the profits from leasing, especially in hard economic times.

A person who works hard to buy land and maintain great habitat owes nobody else access. But I worry how well the next generation of hunters will be able to access good Kansas lands.

I guess there is no real blame to be spread, only the reality of challenges to come.