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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: New bill would enhance game and fish penalties

by Bryan Hendricks | April 2, 2023 at 1:58 a.m.

A new bill in the Arkansas House of Representatives will make game and fish violations a lot more serious.

Sponsored by representatives Steve Unger of Springdale, Rep. Shad Pearce of Batesville and Sen. Kim Hammer of Benton, House Bill 1808 would upgrade many wildlife code violations to Class D felony status.

The legislature seldom concerns itself with hunting and fishing issues, but Austin Booth, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said the commission requested the bill.

"For over 18 months, Col. [Brad] Young and I have prioritized major violations, and sportsmen have said loud and clear that they support stiffer penalties for the most hardened violators," Booth said. "This bill is an opportunity for Arkansans to send a message to those that abuse the resource most severely."

Brad Young is chief of the Game and Fish Commission's law enforcement division.

Booth said the bill remedies the commission's limitations for punishing the most chronic and profligate violators. One of the commission's most powerful incentives is to revoke a violator's hunting and fishing rights once they amass a certain number of violation points. That means nothing to the most egregious violators.

Also, the bill would criminalize personal injury or fatality situations that in the past might have been marginalized as accidents. The bill confers Class D felony status on a violator while knowingly hunting wildlife in a manner that creates a substantial danger of serious physical injury to another person, or causes physical injury to a person.

That covers a lot of situations. For example, if you are hunting wild turkeys while trespassing on private property, you create a substantial danger of shooting a landowner or guest that is lawfully hunting on that property.

It might also apply to duck hunters on public wildlife management areas that hunt too close to other hunters. If you shoot at a duck below the treetops or shoot at a crippled duck on the water and hit another hunter, you could face a felony charge.

That could also apply to shooting at any target without confirming that the target is indeed a legal game animal.

According to the bill, if you negligently shoot a person with archery tackle or a firearm while you are hunting with archery tackle or a firearm while you are under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance, that will be a felony.

It will be a felony if you:

Purchase, sell, offer for sale, barter or trade any species of wildlife or a portion of wildlife that is taken out of season,

Purchase, sell, offer for sale, barter or trade any species of wildlife or a portion of wildlife that is over the bag limit,

Purchase, sell, offer for sale, barter or trade any species of wildlife or a portion of wildlife when the aggregate value of the wildlife or portion of the wildlife is five hundred dollars ($500) or more.

It will be a felony if you exploit wildlife within five years of a second or subsequent conviction for:

Hunting or taking big game during the nighttime,

Hunting during a closed season,

Hunting without a license,

Hunting at night while using sound-suppressor, infrared, thermal, laser-optical or night-vision equipment,

Exploiting wildlife through a violation of any wildlife regulation after having been convicted previously of seven or more wildlife regulation violations within a period of five years.

I have long believed that penalties were too light for excessive and egregious wildlife violations. It is beyond offensive, for example, that people kill turkeys out of season. Not only is the game a public resource that every citizen owns, but turkey hunters have sacrificed more than any other group to help conserve a struggling resource. We have accepted shorter and later seasons. We have acquiesced to opening the season on a Monday instead of a Saturday. We have agreed to a bag limit of only one mature gobbler for the first seven days of the season. We have acquiesced to being prohibited from killing jakes and bearded hens.

We also understand that it is a matter of perspective. Compared to other crimes that actually harm society, poaching isn't that big of a deal, but it is a big deal to sportsmen, and it is a big deal to the agency that manages fish and wildlife for the good of society.

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