Hunters, lawmakers feud over public lands
State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, is public enemy No. 1 with many hunters in the state.
Murdock, who has tried unsuccessfully in the past to stop the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation from adding more public lands for hunting, is trying again this year with SB 776.
As introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, SB 776 would not have allowed the Wildlife Department to buy more land than it already has.
However, the bill was amended to require the Wildlife Department to stay on the sidelines for six months before attempting to buy land.
It was then approved by the Senate Agriculture and Wildlife Committee and passed overwhelmingly in the Senate by a vote of 39-6.
As written now, the bill states the Wildlife Department could only acquire land, for no more than the appraised value, only after the land has been publicly offered for sale at a minimum of six months at a fair market value.
The bill has now moved to the House, where it likely will be assigned to a committee.
A third of Oklahoma’s hunters rely on the public hunting lands that the Wildlife Department manages, according to the agency’s surveys.
As in the past, a grassroots campaign has formed among Oklahoma hunters and hunting groups in an attempt to defeat the bill. Lawmakers are being inundated with phone calls and emails in opposition.
Corey Jager, legislative liaison for the Wildlife Department, said the agency doesn’t like the six-month restriction before buying land but could live with it. But there is still a question about leasing and having land gifted to the Wildlife Department, she said.
The Wildlife Department’s interpretation is that the bill also would require a six-month wait before the agency could lease property for public hunting and fishing, as it does through its Oklahoma Land Access Program, or before accepting property through a donation, Jager said.
“With the language it has now, we do have concerns with it because we are not sure how it applies to leases and donations,” she said.
Jager, though, said she expects the bill to be amended to exclude lease properties and donations from the six-month wait, along with any private inholdings that might come up for sale that are already within a wildlife management area.
“I did talk to Sen. Murdock and I know he has already submitted an amendment to the House author that does clarify that this is only supposed to apply for purchases,” she said.
Murdock, who served in the House from 2014 to 2018 before being elected to the Senate, posted a video on social media last week explaining his motivation behind the bill.
Murdock operates a cattle ranch in Cimarron County and said he is trying to protect farming and ranching for future generations.
“Slowing the government down from owning property,” he stated on the video. “That’s the whole intent of this legislation.”
He urged members of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau — which he claims are in favor of SB 776 — to contact their representatives in support of the bill.
“But be nice about it,” Murdock said in the video, claiming that some hunters have verbally attacked lawmakers.
Murdock said in the video that he would prefer that the Wildlife Department be prevented from buying any more land.
“How much land does Wildlife need,” he said. “They control right now close to 1.5 million acres for Oklahomans to hunt on and they are still actively hunting land to buy.”
The 1.5 million acres of public hunting land the Wildlife Department currently manages represents less than 4% of the land in Oklahoma.
“We see it as an attack on our public lands,” said Josh Karum, chairman of the Oklahoma chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, of Murdock’s bill. “We see it as a back-handed way to limit the growth of our already small public land footprint.”
Wildlife Department hopes to overhaul licensing system
House Bill 2214 also has been amended to include the six-month wait before the Wildlife Department could buy land.
However, the primary purpose of the bill is to grant the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission, the governing body for the Wildlife Department, the authority over licensing instead of lawmakers.
Jager said all hunting and fishing licenses and fees are now set in statute. HB 2214, which passed on the House floor Thursday, would allow the Wildlife Commission to create licenses and set fees by administrative rule instead of through statute.
While there have been concerns expressed by lawmakers about the Wildlife Department raising fees if the bill passes, Jager said the agency’s intent is to simplify the licensing system by having the authority to make changes.
Right now, there are 150 licenses offered by the Wildlife Department, she said.
“We need to clean up the type of licenses that we offer so it is not complicated when somebody wants to go hunt to figure what they need to be legal,” Jager said.
“With kids alone, there are like 14 different youth licenses out there. Parents trying to take their kids hunting for the first time have to try and navigate that. It’s not fair, to be honest.”
Senate Bill 744 is a similar licensing bill without any language requiring the Wildlife Department to wait six months before buying land.
Also, both bills would make the expiration of a fishing and hunting license one year after the date of purchase, instead of the end of a calendar year or fiscal year.
No mountain lion or Bigfoot hunting
Bills that would have legalized mountain lion hunting and Bigfoot hunting have gone dormant and are essentially dead this legislative session.
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, who introduced the bill requiring the Wildlife Department to create a hunting license and season for Bigfoot, is now working with the Oklahoma Department of Tourism on ways to market Bigfoot to bring tourists to southeastern Oklahoma.
But it has “nothing to do with our agency anymore,” Jager said.
Falconers hope for longer squirrel season
House Bill 1112, which passed on full vote of the House, would give the Wildlife Department the authority over squirrel and furbearing seasons, which are currently set in statute by the legislature.
“It really was a constituent-driven request by falconers and trappers, wanting more flexibility with seasons,” Jager said. “
Falconers have requested a longer squirrel season, she said.
Commission votes to reduce daily trout limit
The daily trout limit on the state’s winter areas and the Lower Illinois river will go from six to three in the future.
The rule passed at the March meeting of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission and will likely go into effect either late summer or early fall, said Micah Holmes, spokesman fo the Wildlife Department.
State wildlife officials say the reduction was necessary due to the increasing cost of hatchery-raised trout the agency buys to stock in Oklahoma’s waters. The daily limit had already been reduced on the Lower Mountain Fork River.
The Wildlife Department spends $641,000 annually to put trout in Oklahoma waters.
A controversial bowfishing regulation that would have required bow anglers to keep fish was not presented to commissioners at the March meeting for a vote. State wildlife officials pulled the proposal until more study could be done on native non-game species in the state.