If your Kentucky ‘farm’ is smaller than 5 acres, you now need a license to hunt or fish on it

Published 1:12 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2023

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Kentucky Lantern

It was a small change in a 48-page bill that became law during this year’s legislative session.

Senate Bill 241, sponsored by Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, mainly sought to give the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources the power to acquire perpetual conservation easements for 54,000 acres of land in Southeastern Kentucky.

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That aspect of the bill got the most attention as it moved through the legislature. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed the measure, saying it lacked oversight of the funding to procure the easements. In his veto message, Beshear referenced a 2018 audit by state Auditor Mike Harmon, a Republican, who called for a “change in culture” at Fish and Wildlife due to findings that, among other questionable practices, the department improperly used thousands of dollars to cater banquets and made purchases in a way that appeared to circumvent state procurement rules.

The Republican-dominated legislature easily overrode Beshear’s veto.

But SB 241 also tweaked language in state law about when Kentuckians are exempt from having to purchase licenses to fish and hunt.

Both Kentuckians and people from other states are required to purchase licenses from the department before hunting or fishing on public and private lands, including one’s own property.

Such license purchases accounted for more than half of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ revenue for the latest fiscal year at over $36 million. The department sold 313,726 hunting licenses and 521,009 fishing licenses in 2022.

One of the exceptions to the license requirement is when people own the “farmlands” on which they are hunting or fishing.

SB 241 changed that exception to exclude farms smaller than five acres; their owners will now have to buy a license to hunt and fish on their land, something that caught the leader of an organization representing Kentucky sportsmen by surprise.

“It’s like reading something that headlines in the newspaper, ‘Oh my gosh — how did that get there?’ And you had no ability to talk about it,” said Rich Zimmer, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen. “I would like to see sportsmen and sportswomen have a little more say in what goes into some of these things.

Zimmer said he wasn’t aware of the change in the exception for farmland until he read about it on the department’s website.

The commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in a statement said the change in the law is aimed at stopping “abuse” of the farmland exception for those who may use it to get around buying a license.

“Most resident landowners who have a small pond on their property also enjoy fishing on larger waterbodies and therefore already purchase a fishing license as required by law,” said Rich Storm, the department commissioner. “We are hopeful this new exemption threshold will curtail abuse of the current exemption clause by some claiming to harvest game animals on extremely small tracts of land that they own.”

Webb, the sponsor of SB 241, said it’s been “very frustrating” talking with outdoorsmen about what she sees as a misunderstanding of the bill’s purpose. She said the department had asked her to add language excluding “farmlands” smaller than five acres from the exception to help conservation officers better enforce who qualifies for the exception and who doesn’t.

She said the new law “provides clarity for the consumer, for the sportsman, and it provides clarity for law enforcement, prosecutors trying to enforce this stuff.”

Webb added, “It’s a revenue issue. I mean, if people are thwarting the system by abusing a statute, it’s problematic.”

She said she decided on the five-acre threshold because of the “diverse” farm operations in the state, including farms that are very small. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the average size of a Kentucky farm operation in 2021 was 174 acres.

“This change was so small, I didn’t think a thing about it. Really, truly in the great context of things.”

Zimmer said after hearing the explanation for why the license exception was changed, he wonders if there are “unintended circumstances” that are not being considered with the exception change.

“Was there a better way to go about this?” Zimmer said. “We need to work with the legislature to fully understand that and then also work with the department … if there needs to be a resolution or something, an adjustment in that regulation to go forward.”

Kevin Kelly, the department’s spokesperson, said the wildlife management agency doesn’t have a way to quantify the amount of new revenue that could be brought in by the change to the exception. He said the department estimates that the farmlands exception is used by hunters and fishers on a daily basis, with 17% of deer hunters using the exception, according to one estimate.

“Oftentimes, those hunters purchase a license regardless or because they plan to also hunt elsewhere in the state,” Kelly said in an email.

Zimmer said he’d like to see data on how the farmlands exception is used to better understand the issue the department is describing.