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Tougher poaching law on table
Lawmakers endorse harsher penalties for fish and game limit violators



Panel endorses harsher penalties for fish, game limit violators

ST. PAUL --- A Senate committee on natural resources has endorsed a bill that creates stiffer penalties for state fish and game law violators.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jane Krentz, DFL-May Township, gives Department of Natural Resources conservation officers the authority to seize the hunting and fishing licenses of those who take far beyond their legal limits.

The so-called gross overlimits bill, if it clears the full Legislature and is signed by the governor, would fill a void that allowed some major poachers to keep their fishing and hunting licenses as long as they paid their fines.

Under the bill, poachers could lose their licenses for up to five years -- and have their boat and gear confiscated -- as soon as the value of illegal fish hits $500 under the state's restitution system.

With walleyes valued at $30, that means poachers would lose their license if they had 24 fish, or 18 fish over the usual legal limit.

The amount varies by species. The change also would apply to small game and waterfowl. Deer, for example, are valued at $500, so shooting one illegal deer would lead to license revocation.

The bill is a scaled-down version of legislation that failed in the House last session. Some lawmakers were concerned the punishments were too harsh, said Rep. Bill Haas, R-Champlin, who sponsored last year's bill.

Lawmakers were particularly concerned about penalties against minnow dealers or commercial fishing operations. They also worried that one-time violators would be punished too severely and opposed lifetime license forfeitures.

Last year's bill called for criminal penalties and lifetime license suspensions. It also allowed DNR officials to seize vehicles, boats and trailers used in poaching. The new version does not allow seizure of cars or trucks.

"I think we've worked out their concerns and should be in good shape,'' Haas said Wednesday. A similar version of the bill is expected to advance in the House.

The bill also allows for a gross misdemeanor penalty when the value of illegally taken fish and game exceeds $1,000. It also allows for joint liability when two or more people are involved.

The gross overlimits legislation was pushed in part because of the efforts of recently retired DNR conservation officer Tom Chapin of Grand Rapids. Stories on Chapin's work catching poachers in the Lake Winnibigoshish area with dozens of fish over their legal limits, and with the poachers still allowed to keep their fishing license, inspired lawmakers to push for the change.

"It will give our officers a tool that they haven't had before, but it doesn't provide any additional criminal penalties,'' said Maj. Chuck Schwartz, the information and education manager with the DNR's Enforcement Division.

The ability to revoke and suspend hunting and fishing licenses is a strong deterrent to fish and game violators, he said.

"It's a privilege a lot of people take pretty seriously,'' Schwartz said.

Under the proposed law, DNR officers could revoke licenses when a suspect is charged with a gross limit violation, and the court would make suspensions if the person is found guilty.

Those who lose their hunting or fishing privileges here would also be barred from those activities in several other states that share reciprocity agreements with Minnesota, Schwartz said.

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