A bill that would direct the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to create a system for hunting guides to operate in public hunting areas narrowly passed the state House on Monday.
Senate Bill 566, by Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, and Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, would authorize the Wildlife Department to regulate and assess fees for hunting guides and outfitters in Oklahoma’s public hunting areas, which historically have been off limits to for-profit operations.
The Legislature mandated in 2010 that fishing guides be licensed and listed by the Wildlife Department. There are no requirements to obtain the $90 license, although Coast Guard-certified guides can get the license for $20.
SB 566 passed the House on a 51-49 vote. It will now go to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk.
On the House floor Monday, McDugle said he knows several guides and residents of other states who asked about hunting on public lands in Oklahoma, so he looked at neighboring states that allow the practice and introduced the bill in his home state.
In answer to questions from other representatives, he said some guides already illegally use public lands and that the bill would direct the Wildlife Department to regulate and control the activity that already takes place.
He also noted that some handicapped hunters can’t hunt without assistance and that inexperienced hunters also could benefit by hiring a guide to take them on public lands. He noted that the National Rifle Association supports the bill as one that expands hunting opportunities.
He agreed with Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, that such a program could be modified in future years as part of a broader guide regulation program, similar to the licensing of fishing guides, to cover both private and public lands statewide and as a potential boon for tourism.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, debated the bill, saying the state’s constitution directs the Wildlife Department to manage wildlife for the benefit of all people and that the guide bill would tip things in favor of those who can afford to hire a guide.
“What we have to decide here is who are we here to look after: the average family hunters or those wealthy enough to hire guides,” he said.
Other legislators who questioned the bill noted that many hunters had been calling and emailing with objections based primarily on potential over-crowding and conflicts on limited public areas between well-funded and equipped guides who could push out average hunters. They noted that 95 percent of the state is privately owned and available for guides.
McDugle initially said the Wildlife Department was opposed to the bill but later agreed that the department officially is neutral. The department did make a request in February, when the bill was introduced in the Senate, that if guiding was to be allowed on public lands, then the department should be allowed to regulate the activity. Murdock amended the bill to include department oversight before it passed the Senate.
The confusion over objections from hunters and from the department led Rep. Matt Meredith, R-Tahlequah, to question why the bill was forwarded against objections from hunters and with the Wildlife Department “not on board.”
“We, as representatives, we stand for the people,” McDugle said. “There have been a number of times that state agencies set up their own kingdom and do their own thing without listening to the people, and this is one of those instances. ”
McDugle also objected to the idea that a lot of hunters are opposed to the bill.
“I wouldn’t say that all hunters are against it, by any means,” he said with reference to a group that he said is affiliated with liberal philanthropist George Soros. “Our (wildlife) director went and spoke to that group not long ago, and so you have received a ton of calls based on that.”
He said he could not remember the name of the group.
Other representatives countered that they personally know hunters opposed to the bill and expressed doubt over a broad Soros influence in Oklahoma’s hunting community.