KANSAS CITY — Some of the more than 75,000 Missourians who own small parcels of state land are upset with a proposal by the state to begin charging them for hunting permits that are free.
It's a change from a practice that has been in place since the mid-1980s, allowing residents who owned 5 acres of land or more to have free firearms and archery deer and turkey tags.
But the Missouri Department of Conservation has proposed sweeping changes in its fee structure for hunting and fishing licenses, including raising the minimum requirement for the free permits from 5 to 80 acres.
The change would affect more than 75,000 landowners and their families. One of those landowners is Brain Andrews, who has about 30 acres in the Ozarks and has received free permits for eight years.
"If this goes through, I might not ever hunt deer in Missouri again," said Andrews, 33, a network consultant from Cook Station. "I might even move to another state.
"It's not so much the cost that I'm upset about. It's that we're getting one of our freedoms taken away," he said. "Small landowners like us are the ones who take care of the wildlife. We provide the habitat and the food, and we manage the land."
The decision isn't final. There will be a 30-day comment period during which landowners can contact the Conservation Department and elected state officials. Members of the Missouri Conservation Commission will review that responses. If the measure passes that review, it would take effect sometime next year.
Although the Department of Conservation has a $160 million budget — one of the largest conservation agency budgets in the Midwest — it is beginning to feel the pinch from the current economic downturn, officials said.
Maintaining game and fish programs costs more and it is difficult to find ways to increase revenue, they said.
"We're not saying that these smaller landowners don't matter," said Eric Kurzejeski, chief of outreach programs for the department. "Some have written or e-mailed and said they feel like we're slapping them in the face. That's not the message we want to convey.
"We value what they contribute. It's just that we felt it was time for some changes."
Changing the minimum required acreage from 5 to 80 acres would return to the original intent of the law, he said.
"When we set this up in the 1940s, the purpose was to reward those who were involved in agriculture for their contributions," he said. "We felt that we were getting away from that original intent."
But the increased revenue was also important. The Conservation Department gets federal funding only for those who pay for hunting and fishing licenses. In 2007, for example, the state received $17 for each person who bought a hunting permit.
Increasing the number of Missourians required to pay for permits would increase funding both from federal aid and the sale of more deer and turkey tags.
The Conservation Department has already received a flood of complaints.
Linda Everhart of Blairstown, who with her husband, Johnny, runs the "Missouri Outback" radio show, is one of those who's upset.
"We've heard from all kinds of people who are upset by this," she said. "We're not just going to accept this thing. We're going to fight it."