Farmers who are tired of deer destroying their crops could get a new incentive to let hunters onto their land under a bill in the Nebraska Legislature, but some outdoors groups and state officials aren't thrilled with the idea.
The proposal would create special permits for landowners to hunt deer up to a week before the official firearm hunting season starts, if they open at least half of their land to hunters during the regular season.
The idea arose from two related trends: a rising deer population in some areas of the state and a decline in land that's available to hunters. Farmers who allow hunting on their property are increasingly selling exclusive access to wealthy hunters who pay thousands of dollars so they can bag a trophy buck.
"To me, it's a win-win," said Sen. Dan Hughes, a farmer from Venango. "It gives a little something to landowners who are suffering the damage (to their crops). And if they've already gotten their deer, they'll be more willing to open the land to other hunters."
Nebraska's statewide deer population dwindled during a major disease outbreak in 2012, but deer numbers are on the rise again. In southwest Nebraska, the disease had a much smaller impact and the local deer population has surged. Hughes said farmers in his district frequently complain to him that deer are eating and trampling their crops.
"This bill would give the landowner a reason not to hate the deer so much," he said. "They could take their grandson out hunting a week ahead of time."
The bill would provide up to four free permits per landowner.
The surge in deer aggravates farmers such as 70-year-old Robert Forch, who grows corn, milo and wheat in southwest Nebraska's Hitchcock County. Forch said deer destroyed about 20 percent of the crops in one of his fields in 2017 — a $9,600 loss — and caused substantial damage in others.
They also create road hazards. On a recent drive from his farm to McCook 35 miles away, Forch said he spotted three freshly killed deer on the highway.
Forch said he complained to a state game official and was told he could buy antlerless doe hunting permits, but at that point the damage was already done.
"We've got a horrendous amount of damage and nobody seems to care," Forch said. "This is our bottom line."
Forch said he still hopes to work with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission officials on a solution. He said he asked Hughes to introduce the bill as "a token of appreciation" for farmers whose fields provide a habitat for deer and other wildlife.
"We raise them, we house them, we feed them," he said. "Why shouldn't we have the privilege of hunting them a little bit early?"
Outdoors advocates say the bill would create more problems than it solves.
The bill would give an unfair advantage to farmers who get the special permit, said Scott Smathers, executive director of the Nebraska Sportsmen's Foundation. Smathers said the sound of gunfire would likely scare deer onto neighboring properties whose owners aren't participating in the program, forcing those neighbors to deal with an even larger population.
He said archers oppose the bill as well because it would cut into their hunting season, which typically runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. The regular firearm deer-hunting season begins in mid-November and usually lasts a little more than a week.
"It creates quite a quagmire in existing game law," Smathers said.
Smathers said he understands the frustrations farmers face and hopes to work with them and Hughes to find a different solution. One idea is to create a mentoring program that would allow young hunters to gain experience during the regular season on land where deer are damaging crops.
Nebraska Game and Parks officials said the bill would cost the state as much as $15.6 million a year in lost revenue while requiring them to hire more employees to process paperwork and keep track of all the participating landowners. That in turn could divert money from the commission's law enforcement efforts to prevent illegal hunting.
"We are concerned about the fiscal impact of this," Tim McCoy, the commission's deputy director, said in testimony to lawmakers last month.
McCoy told lawmakers that state officials usually try to work with landowners who complain about game animals destroying their property. He said he was angry the commission hadn't done more to address the farmers' concerns, and publicly apologized.
"I don't think that's good service on my part," he said. "We will be working to correct that."
Hughes said he plans to meet with Game and Parks officials and others to see if the groups can find a compromise. He said he'd rather move forward without passing a new law, but vowed to keep pushing his bill if no agreement is reached.