By Rich Davenport, published December 8, 2021
On December 7, 2021, the NYSDEC released an update concerning the new Southern Zone “Holiday Hunt”, and their decision to shelf the proposed County “Opt Out” regulation, after many comments from a wide swath of interests were received, assuring this year’s inaugural late season opportunity will go on across all southern zone counties as originally authorized.
Originally proposed to commence at the end of the 2020 season, the original Holiday Hunt proposal received many comments, which delayed the adoption of this new opportunity, which is billed as a recreational opportunity for those who may receive that last week between Christmas and New Years off, while also providing a chance for college students away from home at school a chance to hunt deer with friends and family while at home on winter break. The season was not created in time for the 2020 season, however, earlier in 2021, the regulation was codified and the 7-day Holiday Hunt established, touching off a firestorm of sorts among the snowmobiling community, as they view this additional 7 days as an attack on opening the trails for the Christmas/ New Years activity – snow pack of course permitting.
In response to the creation of this 7-day season, several snowmobile clubs, working through the New York State Snowmobile Association (NYSSA), pressured the NYS Legislature to craft a law allowing counties that have “high snowmobiling activity” to opt out of this 7 day hunt using archery, crossbow and black powder implements, citing potential negative economic impacts within counties that elect to open the snowmobile trails after the last big game hunting season closes. New York Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Places governs snowmobiling and oversees the NY Trail Fund, which is supported by snowmobile registration fees, and is sent back to local snowmobile clubs to maintain portions of the corridors via grooming, upkeep and marking the trails, of which 80% run across private property. Parks & Rec officially proclaims the trails may open after the Regular Big Game Season closes, but some counties have agreements between the landowners and snowmobile clubs to keep the trails closed until deer hunting is fully finished, due to safety concerns and land use conflicts envisioned by landowners.
According to the legislative round up found in the June/ July 2021 New York Snowmobiler Online Magazine, NYSSA representatives were able to chorale a Senator and Assemblywoman to sponsor the opt out legislation, and while the Senate bill was passed in the State Senate, Assembly representatives approached the DEC, explaining that the regulators could either propose an opt out for counties concerned with snowmobiling impacts, or the Assembly would pass their bill, and both bills would head to the governor for signature. Recognizing the challenges that would crop up with wildlife management when legislation comes into play, to avoid the slow-moving legislative processes, DEC opted to propose a framework to allow counties to pass a local ordinance to effectively deny the additional opportunity within the acting county or counties. The proposal, released for public comment in early October, saw its comment period close on November 14, with many more comments received than anticipated, reflecting many issues across many concerned stakeholder groups. On December 7, DEC announced due to the volume of comments and issues raised, they have elected to shelf the proposal, until a better approach could be taken, or not taken at all.
The sporting community, while not specifically requesting the “Holiday Hunt”, generally embraced the new season, and according to the recently adopted updated deer management plan, some ideas concerning potentially delaying the southern zone extended archery, crossbow and muzzleloader season to give the deer and wildlife officials and ECOs a break from the already long deer season. Besides the potential recruitment and family time this new season would offer, hunters could also hunt this later period as a “try before you buy”, and gain the experience of a later in the year hunt before any official changes would be made to the existing extended season, which currently is 9 days immediately following the close of Regular Season.
The snowmobile trail season has typically been one where the trails may open once all big game hunting has concluded, provided enough snow is on the ground for groomers to pack the base and assure the lands would see minimal damage from sledding activity. The trail season runs through end of March. Average opening date of trails, based on the entirety of NY, is December 10, but in the southern zone, ample snow cover is often not seen until after New Years. Nevertheless, loss of any potential time was viewed as very detrimental to snowmobilers, and the efforts to circumvent the fish and game superiority of NYSDEC was underway. In the wake of these efforts, many landowners who allow a main or secondary corridor across their lands became rightfully upset that their property rights and opportunity to hunt a new duly established season could be undermined by a county legislature, made very clear if this opt out was successful, permission for the trails across their lands would be rescinded, throughout the entire season, not just that last week of the year. Other concerns included technical conflicts with how deer are managed (by WMU, not by county), private property rights usurpation, patchwork of boundaries, especially in WMUs that could span counties with conflicting participation, and enforcement concerns, as county sheriffs would need to enforce the local ordinances, not DEC ECOs.
So, for at least this season, all southern zone counties will have this Holiday Hunt opportunity, starting 12/26/2021 through 1/1/2022. Time will tell if this endures in its current form, or whether legislative meddling in wildlife management decisions will pick up once again during the 2022 legislative session.