A bill in the Nebraska Legislature would give landowners in Nebraska free firearm permits to hunt deer on their land for seven days before the regular firearm season. It is drawing a lot of attention and strong reactions in favor and in opposition.

A committee hearing on LB 126 was held Jan. 23 at the State Capitol in Lincoln. Sen. Dan Hughes, who introduced the bill, said “every hunting group in the world” came out in opposition. Hughes, of Venango, represents District 44 in southwest Nebraska.

Morrill County landowner Jeff Metz is among those who support the proposal.

“I like it. We’re feeding them (the deer) all year around,” he said, adding that “landowners should have the availability to take the first pick,”

Currently the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission issues landowners permits at a reduced rate for hunting during the regular season. The permits are offered for hunting deer, antelope and turkeys.

In order to qualify for the special early permits, landowners must make at least 50 percent of their land available to any deer hunter with a valid permit during the regular firearm hunting season. The location of that land would be published on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission website.

According to a an NGPC website there are 800,000 acres of public lands across the state — about 1.6 percent of the state’s total land area — so it is primarily private landowners who are providing the forage to support the large deer population.

“I appreciate the (regular) landowner permits being available,” Metz said, but “I really like the idea of letting the landowner hunt for a week prior to the opening of rifle season.”

That would help to make up for the losses that deer cause for farmers and ranchers. According to northamericanwhitetail.com, a single deer will eat about 2,555 pounds of food every year.

“Landowners are feeding the wildlife and receiving hardly any benefits,” Hughes said.

After property taxes, Hughes said, deer are the biggest concern he hears from constituents.

Metz raises wheat and has a cow/calf ranching operation. Deer graze on the wheat over winter, but the bigger concern is the damage they cause by “laying down and pawing around,” exposing bare soil that can blow away in strong winds that come through the area.

As the wheat crop grows taller, deer run through it and “they try to hide in it.” He said they sometimes make trails through a corn field like cow trails across a pasture. They can reduce yields of alfalfa substantially.

“My neighbor’s got some irrigated alfalfa and they’re grazing on that all the time,” Metz said. “There might be 50 to 60 deer feeding on that for three months” out of the year.

LB 126 “is telling landowners, ‘you’ve got more at stake’” than other hunters, Metz said.

Deer were on people’s minds when Metz’s state senator, Steve Erdman, attended a Farm Bureau meeting in his district in the fall. Erdman, of Bayard, represents District 47, which comprises the southwest half of the Panhandle, except Scotts Bluff County.

He said he had planned to introduce a bill to address the concerns, then learned that Hughes had something similar in mind.

“Let’s do one (bill),” he said he told Hughes. “You do it and I’ll support you.”

“I’ve gotten as much email on this as on any other bill this session,” Erdman said.

Hughes said, “We would prefer that Game and Parks (proposes) changes” on its own, but “that’s not likely.” He added, “I’ve met with them several times (and) they have always been unyielding.”

NGPC does not have a comment on the proposed legislation, said Jane Gustafson, assistant administrator in the NGPC communications division. “Where it’s at in the (legislative) process, we don’t comment at this point in time,” she said.

The Nebraska Bowhunters Association, which officially opposes LB 126, listed a number of concerns on its Facebook page. Among other things, the organization objects to the increased overlap between archery and firearm deer seasons. It says the bill would reduce archers’ prime hunting time and increase concerns about their safety. In 2018, deer archery season was Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 and firearm season was Nov. 10-18.

The alert raises concerns that there could be a significant shift from paid landowner permits to free permits, with a loss of funding to NGPC. That would reduce the number of certified permits that would be counted, they say, and could affect federal funding to the commission.

They note that the bill does not require landowners to identify other lands that they own and would hunt on themselves with the special permits. This could cause enforcement problems for NGPC, they say, and increased opportunities for fraud by hunters. The landowner permits currently issued by NGPC require that the land to be hunted on be specified on the permit application.

If LB 126 passes, another bill, LB 127, would specify who could receive the free early hunting permits. As introduced, the bill states that qualifying individuals would include the applicant landowner and his or her spouse, and their siblings who share in ownership of the land. They would also include children and grandchildren of the landowner and of the landowner’s spouse along with spouses of the children and grandchildren. The Nebraska Bowhunters said the expanded definition of family members could cause problems with verification and enforcement.

LB 126 appears to limit the number of permits for an operation to four. However, the Bowhunters Association offers its own interpretation, saying it would mean a total of 16 permits.

Hughes is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, where the bill is being considered before possible advancement to the full Legislature. He acknowledged that there are concerns about the wording of the bill, but “those are issues that can certainly be worked out.” Regarding amendments, he said, “I will be talking to Game and Parks.”

Metz said, “This bill would be a great gesture” that would tell landowners, “We appreciate what you’re doing. You harvest your deer first. You guys are a priority.”

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