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The Senate Judiciary Committee stripped a provision making certain poaching offenses felonies.

Do not feed the bears and do not steal the fish

A host of proposed changes to the state’s fish and game laws is steadily advancing at the Capitol, including measures that would criminalize the intentional feeding of bears and bar the possession of feral swine.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee kept its hand off most of the provisions in the Department of Natural Resources-backed package of overhauls, it stripped out one controversial measure: a proposal to reclassify certain poaching offenses as felonies.

Backed by some sportsman’s groups outraged over a recent spate of high-profile poaching incidents, the proposal would have made the illegal taking of fish, birds or large game a felony in instances in which the restitution value of the wildlife exceeded $2,000.  Under current law, such offenses are classified as a gross misdemeanor.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, objected to the notion of establishing a felony on the basis of the restitution values the DNR assigns to a particular species.

“Perhaps I’m wrong … but it sure seems arbitrary to me,” said Newman, one of the lawyer-legislators who serves on the Judiciary Committee.

Under the DNR’s administrative rules, restitution values vary widely by species. For instance, a poached crappie is valued at $5, while an illegally taken 50-inch muskie is valued at $1,000. Endangered mammals or birds are valued at $4,000.

“Those numbers aren’t picked out of the air by the commissioner,” said Major Rod Smith, the DNR’s enforcement operations manager. He said the restitution values in Minnesota and many other states are derived from a “guiding document” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

However, Smith said that restitution values vary considerably between states, particularly in cases involving trophy animals.  Citing one highly publicized incident in which a buck with a world record rack was poached, Smith noted that Minnesota rules calculated the restitution value of the buck at $1,000. Under Iowa law, according to Smith, that same animal would be valued at $25,000.

“I think he’s just made my case,” responded Newman. “There may be a good reason to establish restitution values for wildlife … but not as the basis for felony charges.”

That sentiment was shared by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, who argued that DNR’s restitution values should be restricted to the calculation of fines.

Gary Leistico, an attorney for the Minnesota Trappers Association, expressed concerns about unintended consequences, which he said could make felons of trappers for the accidental — but unlawful — harvest of high value animals such as the Canada lynx.

He noted that such a felony conviction carries severe consequences, including the loss of the right to possess firearms and travel bans to foreign countries such as Canada.

Smith responded that those trappers who report accidental harvests of protected animals such as the lynx are not criminally charged. He also noted that in the case of such high-value endangered animals, felony over-limit charges would only be lodged in instances where more than one animal was taken. That provision was intended to address scenarios in which the inadvertent killing of a single protected animal might trigger a felony charge.

Nonetheless, the Judiciary Committee members unanimously agreed to knock out the felony provision of the game and fish bill.

The committee declined to wade into several other controversial areas of the DNR package.

Leistico said trappers were particularly concerned about a proposed prohibition on the placement of body-gripping traps within 50 feet of the center of a public road or public trail.

That measure is aimed at reducing the accidental killing of pet dogs, which has been the subject of increasingly vociferous complaint at the Capitol in recent years. Leistico argued that ambiguities about the precise definition of a public road or public trail could lead to inadvertent violations, while Sen. Hall questioned whether a 50-foot no-trap buffer is adequate.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the committee chair, said he was “reluctant” to make policy decisions involving such details.

The committee also passed on a plea from Dana Coleman, a schoolteacher who beseeched the committee to reconsider a bear-feeding prohibition in the Game and Fish bill. Under that provision, people won’t be allowed to deliberately feed bears.

In addition to outlawing hand feeding, it requires people to remove food, even if not intended for the bears, if they discover a bear feeding at the site, and not replace it for at least 30 days.

Among the other provisions in the bill is a prohibition on the possession of feral swine, a growing source of concern among natural resources managers because of the ecological damage caused by the invasive wild pigs in other states.

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