By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
I sat down this week and wrote an entire column lambasting the legislature based on a knee-jerk reaction to less than a dozen words in a release from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFW).
The words that got my attention were related to rules requiring licenses and permits for “Kentucky resident owners of farmlands of less than 5 acres.”
The release explains that one of the provisions in the recently passed Senate Bill 241, which sets up a plan for adding 54,000 acres of wilderness to Kentucky’s public land, requires those “resident owners of farmlands,” along with their spouses and children, to purchase licenses and associated permits if they want to hunt or fish on the land they own.
My first thought was that this was a measure that stripped landowners of their right to manage animals on their own land, and an assault on hunting traditions that reached back to a time when our grandparents often put food on the table with the guns strapped across their backs.
I’d worked up a good head of steam, and put down somewhere between 600 and 700 words, working up phrases about bad legislation wrapped in good legislation, and the right of every property owner to use that property to feed their families – be it through gardens, livestock, or game.
Then, after I got it all out, I read it over and decided I needed to look at the bill in question before I decided to run with my first instinct.
How could I offer an honest critique if I was basing my opinion on nothing but a news release, rather than the full text of the bill? What if there was some context I was missing?
Turns out there was, but I didn’t really find that out just by reading the bill. I got that deeper context after I noticed that the lead sponsor on the bill was Senator Robin Webb, and reached out for clarification.
Webb told me there has been a lot of misinformation about the provision already. She explained there has never been a landowner right to hunt without purchasing a license and tags. Residential land isn’t covered under the Commonwealth’s statutes – only farmland. It doesn’t matter if you own three acres, or three hundred, if that land isn’t farmland, you aren’t allowed to hunt or fish it without the proper licenses and permits.
That said, the definition of farmland can be taken pretty broadly. Webb said any land with crops, including timber, or livestock could be construed as farmland. Because of this game wardens and other law enforcement have requested clarification on what constitutes farmland. One of the reasons for this, Webb explained, is because of telefraud related to reported harvest and hunting locations.
The main reason for requiring hunting licenses and tags, other than revenue for the KDFW, is to allow the department to record harvest data when animals are checked in so they can manage our wildlife properly. This is why we see different bag limits in different regions of the state, which can change as the animal population changes. It’s also why even those people allowed to hunt their farmlands without purchasing permits are required to report on the numbers and locations of animals harvested.
But if people are using the farmland exemption to hide or misrepresent the number and location of their kills, it defeats both purposes.
Webb said that was a concern for law enforcement, so they sought more clarity – especially in identifying land that qualifies as farmland under the management of a landowner, tenant, or their family. So, they looked at a definition of farmland that could stand up in court and drafted legislation that amended the existing legislation with the addition of the phrase “of five or more acres” following the word farmland.
The original exemption was added to allow farmers to take an active hand in the management of their own land, and the law as amended still allows them to do that. The only difference, Webb said, is that law enforcement now has a standard to refer to.
It’s a standard that sets a threshold lower than what was originally sought too. She said law enforcement had originally suggested farmland owners or tenants only qualify for the licensing exemption if they owned ten or more acres of land. She wrote that as five, she said, because it was the minimum acreage she believed could be defended in court as farmland.
And any property owner, regardless of whether their land is farmland or not, still has the right to harvest an animal that is causing damage to their land or property, regardless of season, as long as they properly report the harvesting of the animal.
Originally, I was ready to shame the legislature for passing what I read as an assault of hunting traditions. But the real shame here, it turns out, isn’t the legal clarification requested by game wardens. The real shame is that outrage over this amended language threatens to overshadow the good that will come from helping set aside and manage this huge tract in southeastern Kentucky.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Editor’s note: We own more than five acres and would not personally be impacted by the change in law.)