Scoring the 2007 legislative season


April 15, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

The legislative session that ended at the stroke of midnight Monday didn't turn outdoors lovers into pumpkins.

Instead, for the first time in several years, things largely went their way.

But not without casualties.

After watching more than four years of inept top-level management at the Department of Natural Resources, lawmakers imposed their sense of order on three popular issues: terrapins, yellow perch and fisheries policy.

Also shaken by the scruff, the leaders of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, by suspicious members who wonder if they were misled on a bill that raised the cost of fishing licenses.

The session was swift and intense. Making policy is an ugly business. Steps to make sure everyone was up to speed didn't always happen. Noses got bent out of shape.

But it's over and it's time to move on because a victory for the outdoors and a loss for DNR is like a pitcher throwing a masterpiece for a team that fails to score any runs.

The brand-new DNR honchos need time to show they can do the job. Secretary John Griffin and his deputy, Eric Schwaab, arrived just as the legislative session began, which made their jobs like the spinning-plates guy on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Schwaab says he understands the frustrations felt by sportsmen and women -- especially anglers.

"We're not asking them to trust us. We're asking them to watch us," he says. "When you're in a trust hole, making promises isn't going to get you out. Taking positive steps will."

The first order of business, Schwaab says, is responding to the 57 recommendations of the O'Malley transition team. That shouldn't be hard since he and Griffin served on the darn thing.

You can score their progress on your own copy of the transition report by going to and typing the word "transition" into the search function. Click on the first press release and then click on "Environment and Natural Resources."

While DNR prioritizes and reorganizes, the leaders of MSSA and CCA need to come clean about their role in SB1012, the license fee measure.

Top CCA members helped draft the bill and then dropped it like an ugly prom date after anglers howled. What was that all about?

MSSA leaders said they would support the license increase only if the bill contained a 50 percent match from the state's general fund. When, as expected, the Senate stripped out the matching money, MSSA did not follow through on its threat. So House members voted on the bill under the impression that the "recreational community" backed it.

Yet, even with those negatives, there were a lot of positives:

The standoff between government and recreational anglers on the future of yellow perch management got a shove in the right direction. DNR has until Jan. 1 to produce a plan for legislative review. With the bill passing unanimously in both houses (that's 183 lawmakers agreeing), someone will be watching.

Maryland's ambitious artificial reef program will get $500,000 to buy more of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge for fish habitat in the Chesapeake Bay.

In a victory for clean water, bay grasses and recreational fishing, as of Oct. 1, the strip mining of clams by hydraulic dredgers will no longer be permitted in coastal bays.

Maryland's favorite turtle, the diamondback terrapin, is off limits to commercial exploitation.

In return for an increase in fishing license fees, recreational anglers will help develop a new direction for the Department of Natural Resources by Jan. 1. The Fisheries Service gets $2.5 million starting in fiscal year 2009.

The Wildlife and Heritage Service, which this year is managing critters on hunting license fees and a piddling $87,000 from the state budget, will be getting an infusion of $1.2 million from the general fund.

Somerset, Wicomico, Worcester and St. Mary's counties added to their hunting calendars, great news for deer managers and for folks who work Saturdays and don't get a lot of opportunity to fill their freezers.

"It was a great year for hunters and trappers because science prevailed," said Paul Peditto, head of Wildlife and Heritage. "But it was also a great year for the natural resources we manage. The $1.2 million will fill in the gaps. Seventy-five percent of what we do is with species that aren't hunted and trapped. This gets us moving in the right direction."

Tag lines

Three years ago, DNR numbers crunchers didn't have much to work with when the striped bass season was through. The volunteer angler survey attracted just 152 responses, not nearly enough to help Maryland fend off the deeply flawed federal survey that is used to set the state's quota. This year, fisheries managers say, the volunteer survey will become vitally important when they ask the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to take Maryland off the quota system. The survey can be filled out on the Fisheries Service portion of the DNR Web site or on paper if you call 410-260-8308 and request a packet.

It bears repeating: From Saturday through May 15, an angler may keep one striped bass per day between 28 inches and 35 inches in total length or one fish 41 inches or greater. Striped bass between 35 inches and 41 inches must be released. We exceeded our quota three of the past four years. Let's be careful out there.

The five-week spring turkey season begins Wednesday.

Hunters who show extraordinary patience as they call their birds and wait for them to get within range may have to be a little more Zen this year.

State population surveys indicate reproduction was down the past two summers, which means fewer of the gullible 1- and 2-year-old gobblers. But 2004 was a good year for breeding, so robust but somewhat more wily 3-year-olds will be out there.

Remember to wear a hunter orange cap and to tie an orange ribbon around a nearby tree before you start calling birds in. Save the red, white and blue clothing for July 4 unless you want to be mistaken for a turkey.

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