By TIM HEARDEN
July 3, 2012
SACRAMENTO – Agricultural and tea party groups in California are fretting over a package of bills that would strengthen the state Department of Fish and Game that have so far sailed through the Legislature.
Among the bills is one by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, that would allow the DFG to assess civil fines of as much as $10,000 for any code infraction and allow the agency to handle appeals. Current law requires the agency to work with local district attorneys to prosecute wildlife crimes.
“We believe it takes out some level of due process,” said Margo Parks, the California Cattlemen’s Association’s associate director of government relations.
“I think the intent is to have a deterrent for major violators of the Fish and Game Code, such as poachers or illegal diverters,” she said. “I think that’s the intent. But the way the bill is currently written, it could be for any violation, big or small, which really does pose an obvious problem.”
The legislation – Assembly Bill 2179 – would give the DFG a revenue incentive to impose fines, said Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“They just decide that you violated, issue you a civil penalty and you have to pay,” Cremers said. “We are very concerned about an agency having that sort of power without having the courts make sure they’re acting properly.”
Animal-rights groups, including the San Francisco Wildlife Center and Born Free USA, argue the existing civil administrative hearing process for DFG is overly complicated and expensive and is therefore seldom used.
Provisions of the bill that would increase the DFG’s enforcement authority would “have a deterrent effect, thereby increasing compliance with wildlife laws and reducing wildlife law enforcement burden,” Born Free USA argues on its website.
Allen’s bill is one of several that have farm groups nervous. Among the others:
* Assembly Bill 2402 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would shift the authority to list species as endangered from the Fish and Game Commission to the DFG, whose name would change to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
* Senate Bill 1148 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Angora Hills, would allow the state or undetermined “trustees for fish and wildlife” to recover damages when wildlife are unlawfully or negligently taken or destroyed, the CCA asserted in a newsletter.
All the bills have moved through the Democrat-dominated Legislature on mostly party-line votes, making it out of their own chamber and into the other.
The activity comes as state-appointed committees have been examining ways of beefing up the DFG, including adding wardens with updated equipment, giving them more authority to gather evidence and setting up a special prosecutor’s office to “assist” local district attorneys.
Farmers have been at odds with the agency over water diversions. In Siskiyou County, a judge is preparing to hand down a verdict in a local Farm Bureau’s suit against the DFG over restrictions on irrigation.
The Allen bill has made it to the Senate Appropriations Committee despite the efforts of tea party groups statewide, which have been urging lawmakers to oppose it. Erin Ryan, a tea party coordinator in Redding, Calif., who has helped organize several rural property rights rallies, said rural residents found the number of Fish and Game-related bills in this session “a little scary.”
“When you go out into rural areas, the biggest complaint on any state agency you hear is Fish and Game,” Ryan said. “Rural areas are not well represented, so their ability to fight back is zero.”
Read the bills and analyses: http://leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.htm
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