A couple of times each week my Legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives sends out an emailed newsletter. I’ll be honest, I read almost every one of them…but often I stop a paragraph or two into the usual diatribe being offered. It’s not that I disagree with his rantings, moreover, it’s more a situation of how many politic-related matters these days just bore me to death.
But when I read his most recent update mailed today it struck a chord with me. In fact, even though you many not care about Minnesota game and fish matters this situation could hold true for any state. All it takes is one “over-zealous” conservation officer to ruin your day. As a sportsman, you have certain ethics of fair chase, statutory laws and administrative rules to govern your behavior in the field. Well, guess what…game wardens, or conservation officers as they prefer to be called here in Minnesota, have enforcement rules they must play by, too!
Without further ado, take a read of my Legislator, Rep. Steve Drazkowski’s (21B) update to his constituents:
Hello from St. Paul,
When it comes to enforcement of game and fish regulations, many people I hear from usually have a bone to pick with the Department of Natural Resources – probably because the result of their encounter ended with a ticket.
But other times I’m presented with information that suggests the DNR has overstepped its authority and needs to be reminded that the agency is in place to serve the people, not vice versa.
As a hunter, I can understand how many Minnesotans put their lives on hold for one weekend or week each fall so they can participate in a sport that they love. For some families or groups of friends, it’s the one time each year where everyone travels to a specific location and gets together for a few days of camaraderie and the hope of spotting an elusive white-tail.
That’s why I was disappointed to learn that some of my constituents from Wabasha and Winona counties basically had their hunt ruined by some over-zealous game wardens.
While out on their annual hunt last November, a DNR airplane flew overhead monitoring their every move, for well over an hour. That alone is not illegal; but according to the hunters, what was troubling was the low level of height at which the airplane was repeatedly flying.
Federal law requires normal hunter airplane surveillance to be conducted above 500 feet. Typically, the DNR tells us that their pilots’ normal altitude during these hunter surveillance flights is between 800 to 1,000 feet. Yet in this instance, the hunters tell me the plane was hovering between 100 to 300 feet over their heads, saying it was so loud they couldn’t hear each other speak.
The problem is if an airplane is flying that low and making that much noise, the deer are going to get spooked and leave the area, which is exactly what happened. Eventually these hunters gave up their position and left because the deer had been scared away. Their yearly weekend of fun had ended early through no fault of their own.
Keep in mind; these hunters were doing nothing wrong. The wardens eventually checked every one of them. They had licenses. They were not illegally baiting deer. They were not driving around with loaded shotguns. They were not doing anything illegal, just simply and legally participating in a sport that they enjoy and minding their own business.
I fully understand that the DNR needs to enforce hunting laws. There is nothing wrong with officers walking up to hunters and asking them for their registration. But hovering an aircraft at 200 feet and scaring the hunting party and every animal in sight in order to spy on hunters makes absolutely no sense.
After hearing from these constituents, I crafted and amended a bill stating that DNR aircraft could not fly below 500 feet for normal hunter surveillance, unless game wardens had probable cause of wrongdoing. Failure to stick to this threshold would cost the pilot $1,000.
The bill was heard in our House environment policy committee and was received favorably by the chair of the group. During the hearing, the DNR testified that this incident was a rare exception to the rule.
That may be, but its small consolation to those hunters who had their hunting experience ruined. I’m left to wonder how many other area hunters have suffered a similar fate but just didn’t bother to report the problem.
The DNR has a job to do and I respect that, and the vast majority of our conservation officers do their job very well. But the overwhelming majority of deer hunters are also playing by the rules, so it seems pointless to harass them and potentially ruin their experience simply because watching them from the sky is easier than approaching them on foot.
Have a good weekend,
SteveWeekly Legislative Update Email
Now, please understand I’m not some anti-enforcement advocate with a chip on my shoulder when it comes to game wardens. Quite the contrary. However, I have worked in the criminal justice field (particularly criminal defense) and I can tell you how those folks entrusted to uphold the law need checks and balances on their powers just as much as the typical citizens needs clearly defined laws to guide their proper behavior.
I’ve seen first-hand how law officers will push the limits of their powers. I’ve seen how sloppy job performance can be corrected by creative report writing. Indeed, the very people who are badge wearing professionals entrusted to use proper procedure will at times take shortcuts or other inappropriate measures. Oh, I’m sure the actions are sometimes justified in their minds because they are up against all odds when it comes to performance of their sworn duties.
All of that being said, Steve’s got it right when here in Minnesota for many families deer hunting comes down to just one weekend spent in the woods each year. How can you maximize that recreational satisfaction when big government goes to such extremes to keep an eye on you in the manner he claims?
During the 35+ years I have been hunting, fishing, trapping, etc. I have seen the number of rules I must follow explode into a fairly large synopsis nowadays too large to even fit into one’s pocket. It seems only fair and reasonable that if common sense doesn’t dictate the appropriate actions of law officers than we must write more rules that govern their behavior, as well.
The way I view it…it’s not about making a tough job even tougher by setting enforcement limits. Instead, it’s giving those who wear the badge an opportunity to lead by example following their own rules first and foremost. Kudos Rep. Drazkowski on a job well done and for the courage to make this change of policy!