OKLAHOMA CITY — Rogue hunting guides are crossing private farms more frequently in rural Oklahoma, as they lead clients to prized prey.
Illegal hunters are increasingly getting into face-offs with game wardens and landowners, so much that lawmakers are considering whether to license guides to add an extra layer of accountability.
But the idea has critics — especially within the hunting community.
“To me, it’s just a big can of worms we do not want to open,” said Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, in an interview. “I do not need the state telling … me I need a license to do that.”
On Tuesday, lawmakers at the Capitol talked about ways to increase oversight of hunting guides.
The state does not now regulate who can be a licensed guide, said Spencer Grace, a Kay County game warden. Anyone with internet access can create a guide service overnight, he said.
And there are debates about what exactly qualifies someone as a guide.
In a state where as much as 97 percent of land is privately owned, lawmakers acknowledge guides, who are often paid big money by private clients, can struggle to find places to take their clients.
Oklahoma forbids guided hunts on public land, which game wardens say are typically crowded with independent hunters.
Many guided hunts instead end up on private property.
“I have driven out and watched people walking out across my fields,” said Rep. Casey Murdock, a Republican from the small Panhandle town of Felt. “This is my land, and I have no idea who you are.”
Rep. Steve Vaughan, R-Ponca City, said guides pretending to be independent hunters have knocked on farmers’ doors, asking for permission to shoot birds such as ducks, geese and pheasant.
Glad to be rid of a few geese, farmers will grant permission, he said, only to wake up the next morning to discover as many as 20 hunters in their fields.
The farmer calls a game warden, who will hand the entire party hefty tickets — starting at more than $700 per person for a first offense.
Often, hunters have no idea they’re actually trespassing.
“That has become a major issue,” said Grace. “We do have a lot of commercial guides that misrepresent themselves to the landowners. So our primary focus … would be to help those landowners out there that are being taken advantage of.”
Game warden Larry Green said fines, as steep as they may seem, don’t deter some guides.
The guides, who often charge more than $300 per day per hunter, pay the tickets and write off the expense as a cost of doing business.
Other guides monitor property, trying to determine which plots are owned by absentee landowners who are unlikely to notice large groups of hunters.
Lawmakers say they worry about the liability that landowners may face if someone is injured on their land — even if the hunter was trespassing at the time.
Laws governing hunting guides vary by state. New Mexico has stringent laws, game wardens say, while Texas and Kansas do not.
In Oklahoma, game wardens say the problem is at its worst during waterfowl season, though licensing requirements should apply to all guides regardless of what’s being hunted.
Last year, there were 419,445 licensed hunters in Oklahoma, according to the state Department of Wildlife Conservation. The department does not track how many hunting guides operate in the state.
Vaughan said the state, instead of restricting guides, might consider stiffer penalties on existing laws to weed out bad actors.
Wallace, the Wellston lawmaker who co-owns The Wilderness Refuge, a private commercial hunting facility in Lincoln County, said he pays an annual $500 licensing fee for his business. His clients hunt whitetail deer and elk on his land.
If the state is licensing guides, he said, it also should open up public land to guided hunts.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, mechanical issues that have to be looked at,” he warned fellow lawmakers. “It’s not going to be an easy vote to get it passed at 23rd and Lincoln.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.