Legislative scorecard: Natural resources gain ground

Some issues already defined for 2011 session

April 18, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

The General Assembly folded its Annapolis tent after 60 days of coasting followed by 30 days of frantic activity and didn't leave too much of a mess behind. For the outdoors community, lucky us. To recap:

Lawmakers approved a new fishing license for the Chesapeake Bay and coastal waters that satisfies federal requirements to provide a "phone book" of anglers to determine more accurately how many fish we're catching. The money raised by the license next year and beyond will stay in Maryland instead of going to the U.S. Treasury, as it would have if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had continued to run the saltwater angler registry program for the state.

They didn't slash $1.7 million from the Fisheries Service budget, as had been recommended by the analysts with the green eye shades and sharp pencils.

They rejected multiple attempts by pro-commercial fishing interests to derail the creation of oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

And they acknowledged—belatedly—the importance of a robust Natural Resources Police force to protect the state's critters, waters and woods. Of course, there's no money attached to that "I saw the light" realization, but it's a baby step for a law enforcement agency that's been neglected and belittled by state officials for more than a decade. We'll get back to that in a moment.

Unfortunately, lawmakers also committed some acts of breathtaking stupidity and arrogance.

Instead of allowing wildlife managers to straighten out the hash of Sunday hunting regulations—a hash they created by their piecemeal amendments to the original 2003 law—the General Assembly opted to ignore the problem for another year. That means a person can bow hunt in 11 counties on the last three Sundays in October and the second Sunday in November. In 12 counties, deer hunting is allowed on the first Sunday of the bow season while 19 counties permit deer hunting on the first Sunday of firearms season. But in Baltimore, Carroll, Howard, and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City, Sunday hunting is a non-no under any circumstances. Deer, however, may hunt people at any time. I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention.

Due to the tit-for-tat tactics of state Sen. Roy Dyson (who had his underwear in a knot when he didn't get his way on other matters), convicted poachers who have had their licenses suspended can continue hunting on private property, law-abiding hunters be damned. Dyson, a charter member of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, blocked a bill that would have closed the loophole and barred wildlife thieves from hunting anywhere in Maryland, period. Way to go, dude.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Richard Colburn was responsible for destroying a bill that would have toughened penalties for oyster poachers. When his bill to force a year's postponement on the establishment of oyster sanctuaries was tossed in the trash, Colburn went Dumpster diving to revive it as an amendment to the oyster penalties bill, causing its demise. I'm guessing the Eastern Shore lawmaker was seeking a delay in hopes that a newly elected Gov. Robert Ehrlich would reverse the oyster restoration program of the vanquished O'Malley administration.

An aside: Let's see, you prevent watermen from hammering female blue crabs for two years and what happens? The crab population increases 60 percent. Ditto protecting striped bass and yellow perch. Makes it hard to argue against trying sanctuaries to help oysters, a species at 1 percent of its historic levels.

But back to the Conservation Law Enforcement Act of 2010, which on its surface looks like a smoke-blowing pat on the head for the boys and girls with badges—especially after Dyson gutted it.

The big question is: Now what?

Fishing, hunting and conservation groups should lobby Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin to immediately establish a task force, similar to the one that reviewed fisheries management, to study Natural Resources Police and recommend improvements. The report should be completed in time to draft legislation—with real money attached--for next session.

The task force should include someone from Department of Budget and Management, representatives of the House and Senate budget committees and retired judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers. And it should be led by former NRP Col. Tammy Broll, advised by Deputy Secretary Joe Gill (DNR's former assistant attorney general) and facilitated by Wildlife and Heritage Service Director Paul Peditto, a lawyer.

Anything less would be a smoke-blowing pat on the head.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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