Game-hogs are people who go hunting and don't pay attention to the legal limits imposed by state or federal law.
No one knows how many game-hogs there are or how badly they hog game when they go hunting. But a recent incident on Maryland's Eastern Shore gives the observer pause.
On opening day of dove season, September 1, state game officer Burton Wheedleton was staking out a Talbot County field where concentrations of mourning doves were known to be. He watched a group of hunters shooting the doves, and he counted the birds shot by one man in particular.
The limit on doves is 12 a day, and when the man shot his 15th dove Wheedleton made the arrest. The collar would not be worthy of a footnote in history but for the fact that the arrested man was Rogers C.B. Morton, former secretary of Interior and former Maryland congressman.
The Interior Department is the federal agency that oversees the plight of America's migratory game birds, and mourning doves are the single most popular hunting species among them.
Morton forefeited $300 collateral he posted against a court appearance. He was not punished by loss of license, though the forefeiture is read to be an admission of guilt.
If that seems a meager punishment for violation of hunting laws, consider that the average fine for a first offense is about $50 in Maryland, according to Lt. Jack Taylor, who heads up state game-law enforcement.
And at that, game-hogging is one of the hardest laws to enforce. "We don't have that kind of manpower," Taylor said. "We're operating on a two-man-per-county basis. I don't want to sound like a defeatist, but it's tough, really tough."
Last year, according to Taylor's figures, the state made or contributed to 923 arrests for game violations. Of that total only 16, by Taylor's count, were for exceeding bag limits: three for dove hunters, five for unspecified game and eight for waterfowl.
By contrast, 153 citations were issued to hunters found with loaded guns in their cars; 84 hunters were cited for spotlighting deer while the hunters had firearms in their possession; 68 were charged with hunting with guns capableof holding more than the three shots allowed by federal law, 52 were charged with failing to wear fluorescent orange while deer hunting.
Those figures would indicate that game-hogging is not a major source of game violations. But recent interviews with hunters in the field have led me to wonder if that's the case.
There was the crowd in Warrenton that talked of a day last fall when a group of hunters showed up with a pickup truck full of doves. There were over 500 birds in the truck, and the hunters cleaned the birds by the side of the road.
"I'm telling you, there were feathers everywhere. If the warden had come by those guys would still be in jail," said one observer.
Then, in a goose blind on the Eastern Shore, there was the hunter who said that if everything went right we'd have our three-bird limit early in the morning. Then, he said, "We can take them over to get them picked, and once we're rid of them we can come back and shoot another limit."
In Pennsylania two years ago I rode along with a warden checking hunters the first day of the season. The very first car we checked had an untagged deer tucked into the trunk. The hunter was ticketed and his deer tag was confiscated, meaning he could hunt no more deer that year.
"He was taking the deer home," said the warden. "As soon as he got there he'd hang that deer up and come back for another one. There's not much we can do about it. These people up here in the mountains have their own way of looking at things."
Maryland Wildlife Administrator B.F. Halla agrees. He feels the worst offenders are rural people hunting in their own bailiwicks. "For a city person, it's a recreation. But rural folks live with these critters all year long. They have a different approach. They sell the road accidents, the damage game animals can cause.
"Years ago we all used to go out in the back, grab a chicken, cut its head off and eat it for dinner. A lot of rural people still live that way. Animals are everyday things in their lives."
City people, Halla says, are more aware of the image problem hunters have. "National and state antihunting efforts have made an impact on the hunter, and he's trying to clean that image up."
Still, game-hogging goes on, and the people who pay for it in the end are the hunters who obey the laws. "We assume that poaching and overshooting the limit are constants," said Halla. "We have very little control over it with our limited manpower."
As a result, the federal and state agencies have to adjust legal limits to take into account what game will be taken illegally. "When we set a season, we're basing it on what we know the effects of that season will be," Halla said. With poaching and game-hogging a constant in that equation, it's the law-abider who pays the price, in lower limits and shorter seasons.