The opening week of the General Assembly is an empty canvas.
For the Department of Natural Resources, that means no bills, no hearings, no being hauled in front of a committee.
But that doesn't mean the folks in the trenches are quiet. The agency's leadership is doing stuff on the legislative front it hopes will make things better for both the outdoors and outdoors users.
At a sit-down at an Annapolis eatery with DNR's top men (I had the pasta Bolognese, sat with my back to the wall and we split the check), we kicked around what the next three months could bring.
Secretary John Griffin said he expected "a tough session" in light of an unsettled economy and an anxious electorate. Then there's the small matter of closing the $1.6 billion budget gap and the potential loss of as many as 1,400 state employees system wide through a voluntary program.
"There's always things that come up that you don't expect," said Griffin in his best undertaker tone.
Still, there's a state to run and constituents to serve. So what's up?
For hunters, it could mean standardizing Sunday deer hunting on private land, a measure that failed last session. The 2003 bill that broke a 280-year ban on Sunday hunting allowed county legislative delegations to opt in or out or create something to their constituents liking. That resulted in a dog's breakfast of regulations that no one could follow. For example, 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 no-no under any circumstances. Try abiding by or enforcing that, I dare you.
Also likely to return for another go is a bill to allow the Wildlife and Heritage Service to do to critter poachers what the Fisheries Service is allowed to do to fish, crab and oyster thieves, namely revoke their privileges.
Paul Peditto, the head of the Wildlife and Heritage Service, said getting that power "is the last and most important tool in our penalty quiver." Right now, the state does not require people hunting on private property to have a license, so there's no way to punish hunters caught poaching there.
Last year's bill was gutted by a petulant state Sen. Roy Dyson in retaliation for some perceived slight — what's up with that guy?
As for law enforcement, DNR Deputy Secretary (and former assistant attorney general) Joe Gill hopes the legislature will give Natural Resources Police more authority to make cases against poachers and track offenders on probation.
Gill wants officers to be able to inspect areas and containers below decks of commercial fishing boats and coolers at seafood businesses. The request would extend existing powers to inspect taxidermy shops, fur dealers, aquaculture operations and regulated shooting areas.
In addition, the deputy secretary wants officers to be able to use information in watermen's catch reports as part of their investigations. Gill says there have been cases where harvest reports have clearly established that watermen fished without licenses, out of season and in prohibited areas, but state law does not allow officers to launch an investigation using that information.
Gill also hopes the General Assembly will authorize DNR to require a monitoring system, similar to a home-detention bracelet, on the fishing boats of watermen convicted of natural resources crimes or who have pleaded no contest to charges or have been placed on probation. The cost of the device and installation would be paid by the waterman.
The Fisheries Service has authored two bills: one to give it the broad authority to manage and regulate fishing gear and another to allow aquaculture leases in the barren areas of oyster sanctuaries.
Tom O'Connell, the head of Fisheries, said there are areas in the Little Choptank River and Harris Creek, where aquaculture could flourish without harming areas set aside for oyster protection. The right rules, he says, would make the two compatible.
"More oysters in the water, filtering the water, is a good thing," he said.
•NRP will start an academy class of 15 in April. That's not enough to keep it at its authorized strength of 247 officers (down about 40 positions compared to a decade ago), but it's something.
•The one-year pilot program that sets aside a Friday each month in Annapolis District Court to hear natural resources cases has been "highly successful," said Gill, who expects to meet soon with Chief Judge Ben Clyburn about expanding it to other counties.
•DNR is awaiting a "white paper" from Bill Miles, a lobbyist for the Maryland Saltwater Sportsmen's Association, concerning striped bass allocations between recreational anglers and watermen. Right now, the annual harvest is split 60-40, but MSSA wants to take a large chunk of the watermen's share and dedicate it to "conservation," a back-door attempt to turn striped bass into a game fish. Said Griffin, "I have never supported game-fish status."
Now you know what I know. Pass the garlic bread.