TOPEKA — Joel Wimer believes state officials are impeding tourism with restrictions on deer-hunting permits.
He operates the C&W Ranch southwest of Salina, where operations include outfitting and guiding hunters across 6,000 acres.
"The greatest benefits that we can provide out-of-state fee hunters is a rewarding hunting experience on varied terrain over a 70-mile radius, and comfortable bed and breakfast lodging for gentleman hunters," Wimer said.
Rep. Ken Corbet, R-Topeka, introduced legislation on behalf of the ranch that would allow landowners in Kansas to transfer deer permits to out-of-state hunters. State officials worry the proposal will lead to an increase in poaching by trophy-seekers while limiting access to Kansas hunters.
Corbet, whose Ravenwood Lodge offers hunting and other activities, says House Bill 2167 is about rural revitalization. He anticipates permit transfers would attract 4,500 tourists annually with an economic impact of $8 million.
“It gets people coming to this state, and they’ll come back for other things," Corbet said. "This state has to grow both in population and economics. We need something, and this will cost nothing. There’s no cost to this bill.”
Currently, nonresidents can apply for a deer permit through a lottery system, and the state says 97 percent are granted. Corbet's bill would allow Kansans to transfer a permit, at any price, for each resident per 80 acres of land owned or operated.
Supporters of the bill say the change would make it easier for a visiting family member to get a permit. Opponents say outfitters will take advantage of the system like they did the last time this was implemented.
The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee advanced the legislation last week, despite objections from Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
When the state tried a similar approach two decades ago, Loveless said, there was pressure to curtail car accidents by thinning the deer population. He said the system was terminated because of a myriad of problems, including violations of transfer rules and poaching.
"We believe this proposed bill today would do little or nothing to remedy those problems that occurred with the first bill, and there are significant changes in our circumstances since 1999," Loveless said.
Back then, just 5 percent of hunters in Kansas were nonresidents, Loveless said. Now, the state stands alone with 24 percent coming from out of state, and nobody knows how many permits will be added if transfers are allowed, he said.
Loveless said the rate of deer-related car crashes has decreased. Out-of-state hunters come for the trophy bucks, he said, but populations are controlled by targeting does.
Corbet said he was offended by Loveless suggesting the bill could lead to an increase in poaching. The secretary said the illegal activity was fueled by outfitters who again could broker tags under Corbet's plan.
"An outfitter would come to a landowner and say, I’d like you to put in for these permits, and I’ll manage them for you," Loveless said. "We saw that. We have data.”
In some cases, he said, they tied up thousands of acres of land where only out-of-state hunters could gain access.
Those concerns were shared by Ron Klataske, executive director of the Kansas Audubon Society. The organization doesn't have a position on the bill, but Klataske reflected on the situation from the perspective of a landowner and hunter.
Klataske said there should be a way to accommodate landowners — he has property in Riley, Pratt and Washington counties and and would like to make it easier to invite his nephew from Nebraska to come hunt — but he expects outfitters will try to reduce available hunting space.
Commercial enterprises don't want to leave space for the locals, he said, because locals don't have to pay $2,500 for a five-day adventure.
“It might be utilized by outfitters to lease more land, making it less available to others, leaving local folks to say, 'Doggone it, I don’t have a place to hunt,' " Klataske said.
Ron Kaufman, spokesman for KDWPT, said the previous system led to arguments between landowners and permit brokers. After convening a task force in 2007, the Legislature reversed course. Similar bills were introduced five times in the past two years, Kaufman said, and defeated.
Corbet said the term "outfitters" isn't in the bill and is only brought up to be a deal killer. He said any problems with transfers in the past were a result of poor management by KDWPT.
"If there was a failure in the program before, it would be up on their part," Corbet said. "If they administered it poorly, that’s their fault. You know what I’m saying? You can’t blame the landowner.”
To improve oversight, he said, the state could require landowners to provide the name, address and contact information of those who buy the permit.
Corbet said he wouldn't personally benefit from the proposal and doesn't have an interest in brokering deer permits through Ravenwood.
“Kansas is a great destination," he said. "People like to come here. They don’t come here, they go someplace else.”