Monday November 5, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The amount of posted land in Vermont has been increasing in recent years, going from between 100,000 acres to 150,000 acres from 1971 to 1996 to between 200,000 acres and 230,000 acres from 1997 to 2011.

The numbers are from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and reflect posted land registered with town clerk offices.

According to Section 67 of the Vermont Constitution "The inhabitants of this State shall have liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not includes, and in like manner to fish in all boatable and other waters (not private property) under proper regulations, to be made and protected by the General Assembly."

Unless a person takes measures to enclose or "post" their property, anyone who is properly licensed can go onto their property and hunt, fish, or trap there. Once a person posts their property in accordance with regulations, hunters, anglers, and trappers must obtain permission from the landowner to conduct those activities.

A slight exception is the Youth Hunting Weekend -- which began Saturday -- in which participants must have permission from private landowners before hunting on their property even if the land is not posted. Hunters also need landowner permission to recover dead deer from posted land should they go onto it after being shot. The landowner, however, can not take possession of the dead deer, lest they violate game laws on possession of animals they themselves did not legally shoot, according to local Game Warden Travis Buttle.

This year the Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a service through its Website that connects willing landowners with hunters looking for a place to hunt. This was done in response to two types of complaints, one from landowners with deer damage to their property and the other from hunters saying with all the posted land there are fewer places left to hunt.

"The biggest complaint I've heard is that people move to Vermont and buy plots of land that used to be open to hunting, and that's the first thing they do is post it," said Joseph Krawczyk, of Bennington, and a hunter.

Krawczyk said he often hears the complaint at the annual meetings the Department of Fish and Wildlife holds for deer hunters. The meetings are held at different locations and allow the state to explain its herd management strategies as well as receive feedback from hunters.

"There's people who've posted the land that will allow you to hunt, but they want to be asked. They may have had a situation in the past where somebody was there and they heard shots or saw lights at night or something and didn't know who was in that area so they decided to post their land after that," Krawczyk said.

Not all hunters view posted land as a big problem.

"It's always appropriate and always great hunter etiquette to ask permission whether posted or not," said Chris Bates who hosts "Outdoor Secrets," a radio show on WBTN every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Bates said he has not been in Vermont for more than a few months but has extensive hunting experience in the western part of the country, where people do not have the initial right to hunt on private land. Bates said permission to hunt should be asked from landowners regardless of whether their land is posted, and their wishes respected.

Posted or not, other hunters feel there's plenty of land to hunt.

"Two-hundred thousand is a lot, but if you look at the size of Vermont it's very, very minimal," said Kevin Hoyt, of Bennington. Hoyt is an avid deer hunter and has filmed deer hunting shows for CAT TV and other local access stations. Hoyt said while there is a lot of land to hunt, it tends to be the best deer hunting grounds are also the most heavily posted.

"I think basically it's focused around the white-tailed deer because that's the most commonly pursued animal, and unfortunately deer like humans, they like agricultural land, they like farm land, that's where the majority of them are," he said. "So when you say 200,000 acres I'm guessing most of that is prime white tail habitat. "

According to Ethan Ready, spokesman for the Green Mountain National Forest, roughly 200,000 acres of the Green Mountain National Forest's 400,000 acres is in Bennington County. He said all of that land is open to hunting, but many believe it is not. He said hunters go there for moose, bear, and other big game and the land itself is managed with those purposes, and others, in mind.

Hoyt said he also follows the practice of asking permission to hunt in all cases and slightly more than half the time he is given permission. He said most landowners just want to know where hunters will be and when for safety reasons, plus being courteous makes the hunting community look good. He said hunters can always offer to patrol posted land they have permission to be on and report people who don't have permission.

A landowner in Pownal, who asked not to be named for this article, said he posted his land some 10 years ago after finding a bullet hole in his house.

"I don't know when it came through the house," he said. "It came right through the bedroom, through the wall."

He said it happened during hunting season and so he had the land posted. He said he doesn't have much land anyway, but when people ask to hunt it he politely refuses them.

Frans Van Schaik, who moved to Pownal from Europe about four years ago, said he posted his land immediately upon buying it.

"When we got here to look at the property it was like a war zone," said Van Schaik, adding he first examined his 320 or so acres during deer season. "There were bullets flying through the air and we had young children."

Van Schaik said he allows people to hunt on his land with permission, but only locals, and they must carry a radio in case they get hurt. Van Schaik said his problems have been less from hunters and more from people dumping garbage on his land from the roadside. He said the signs do not work alone and he must patrol the property line where he raises cattle. Between the signs and patrols he has seen a decrease in garbage dumping and road hunting.

According to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Website, landowners have a few different options in restricting hunting and similar activities on their property. One is establishing a "safety zone" which bars shooting and taking game within 500 feet of a residence. Another is "hunting by permission only" signs. These work with permission cards or a check in/check out system. The third is posting the property, which requires the landowner to register their land as posted with their town clerk, pay a $5 fee, and follow certain guidelines on what kinds of signs they have to place and how far apart they have to place them. The signs have to be dated each year, otherwise they're not valid.

For up to date guidelines one should visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.

Buttle said being on posted land without permission is punishable by a $256 fine and a one year suspension of hunting, fishing, and trapping privileges. Damaging posted signs can be punished with a $315 fine and 10 points on one's hunting or fishing license.

The citation is a fish and wildlife ticket but is still a criminal citation, Buttle said. The technical name is "poaching on a private preserve," and is different from criminal trespassing. For unlawful trespassing, a person has to have been told they are not welcome on the land by the landowner then gone into the land, he said

Buttle said he cites about five people a year for hunting on posted land, many of whom claim they didn't see the signs.

"It's been my experience so far that posting property only keeps the honest people out," he said. "Dishonest people are going to do what they want anyway." He added that landowners have to be proactive in walking their properties if they want the signs to be effective.