Know and Respect Your Limits

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Doug Pike

Consumptive outdoor recreation is a privilege, like driving or voting. Lawmakers have neither reason nor justification to revoke that privilege, so far, but our own greed ultimately could do what no politician would dare.

We’re fortunate just now to live in a relative time of plenty, a short stretch of history through which several populations – speckled trout, redfish and pintails, among others – have increased. That’s no accident, by the way. Those upticks happened for two reasons: nature cast a kind eye on those particular species lately, and we’ve been conservative managers.

No matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, by the way, our ability to sway the future of fish and wildlife pales alongside what can be accomplished in a finger snap – as has happened routinely throughout history – by nature. Forces outside and beyond our control can turn on an unpredictable dime and result either in a population boom or, with a single deep freeze or bout of disease, bring any species to the brink of disappearance.

We cross our fingers and hope nature will smile on things that swim and fly and walk and crawl and jump. And so long as things are going well, our management of those resources is a simple exercise: Set a limit, enforce it, maintain slow but steady growth.

On the front end, long-term health of these resources is entrusted to professional managers, well educated members of the scientific community who can look impartially at a population and determine what level of harvest it can take without overall loss. They study, they analyze, and then they recommend.

Unfortunately, those recommendations tend only to be that – recommendations. Somewhere between the purity of science and the ink on pages of regulation manuals, other people’s opinions occasionally clutter and confuse and rewrite the rules, typically on some unfounded lark to satisfy short-term interests or prop up another political dead horse.

I recall with deep irritation the arrogance displayed years ago by a faction of commercial fishermen and the elected officials they’d swayed into camp when a particular style of fishing was earmarked for permanent dissolution.

If these fishermen’s jobs were going away, the argument went, they would be entitled not only to retraining into other professions but also to extreme compensation for their boats and gear and lost income.

Trouble was, they’d pretty much wiped out their own fishery and then demanded reward behind that greed. That’s like people who work in a saw mill wanting to be paid after realizing they’ve just cut down the last tree in the forest.

I’m proud overall of the way recreational hunters and fishermen have reacted to one new restriction after the other over recent years, and I was quite pleased that federal managers responded to an increased pintail population this past summer by adding a second one of those beautiful ducks to the strap.

At the same time, I’m a tad frightened by what would happen to this state’s and this nation’s fish and wildlife if limits in general were eliminated entirely or even loosened a little too much for too long.

On the back end of management is law enforcement, and I cannot imagine a number of game wardens that would be too many in a state so large as Texas. They are essential, because even with so many fishermen and hunters aware of their stewardship roles, there still are people who have no problem justifying the occasional “extra” fish or duck or deer either because they don’t get out often or they’re from out of town or some other equally poor excuse.

Limits are set with all those variables taken into consideration. Managers know that 10 percent of the fishermen still catch 90 percent of the fish and always will. Managers know there are poachers on the water and in the woods – and that wardens can’t catch them all. The challenge in Austin, from behind a desk overlooking the entire state, is to account for everything and irritate nobody. That’s a tall hill to climb.

When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opened (again) discussion of a statewide daily bag limit of five speckled trout, for example, some fairly high-profile players in the game rushed to oppose the idea.

There is no scientific reason for the change, they said, and there are plenty of trout. And that’s true, for now, but it’s equally true that there has never been so much pressure on that resource. Those 90 percent who rarely caught fish in the past now have GPS and braided line and stronger rods and sharper hooks and faster boats. And croakers. They’re catching fish, not lots but some, and they “count” against the bottom line.

Those 90 percent can’t wait to catch two instead of one or four instead of two. And all the while, the 10 percent keep catching limits or near limits more days than not.

For every species on which TPWD restricts harvest, there’s someone who will argue that the number is too low. If you don’t like the limit, bang your tambourine and voice your opinion to anyone who will listen, then either fish or don’t fish, hunt or don’t hunt. Outdoor recreation is not mandatory. In addition to being a privilege, it’s also a choice.

Last time I looked, Texas was a pretty nice state for outdoorsmen. If its rules and regulations bother you, try one of the other 49.

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