Tougher Penalties Sought for Poachers
By Christian M. Wade Statehouse Reporter
Marblehead state Rep. Lori Ehrlich
BOSTON — Massachusetts has become known as a "poachers paradise" because of its outdated game laws and paltry fines that do little to deter illegal hunting, trapping and fishing.
But an unlikely alliance between animal rights activists and hunters is driving a proposal on Beacon Hill that would increase fines for hunting and fishing violations and poaching of deer, bear, turkeys and other wild game. Violators would face hefty new fines, license suspension and even jail time for multiple offenses.
The proposal would also add Massachusetts to the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, a national database that shares information about suspected poachers and the suspension of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses between member states. Only Massachusetts and Hawaii have not joined.
Supporters of the proposal, unanimously approved by the Senate last week, say the state's gaming laws need updating to deter poachers.
"Poachers are cheating the system and stealing resources from wildlife watchers, hunters and fishermen," said Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, a co-sponsor of the measure. "Many of the fines for poaching are as low as $50, which isn't a deterrent. They're basically letting willful offenders off with a slap on the wrist."
Under current state game laws, the vast majority of poaching offenses carry as much weight as a parking ticket.
Some of the fines haven't been updated in more than a century.
Under the proposed changes, fines for killing a deer out-of-season or without a hunting license would rise from a low of $500 to a high of $3,000 per offense.
The maximum fine for killing a black bear out of season, or taking more than the one-per-season limit, would double from $5,000 to $10,000 each violation.
Illegal killings of a bird of prey, which are protected species, will cost poachers up to $10,000 for multiple offenses, including up to a year in prison.
Fines for hunting from a roadway would increase to a maximum of $3,000 for each violation from the current $1,000 penalty.
The proposal also adds smaller animals that currently have no fines for poaching. Poaching a raccoon, rabbit or gray squirrel could cost you $25 per animal.
It also adds a new category for "thrill killings" — where people kill animals indiscriminately without taking the meat or pelts — that would carry fines up to $15,000 for multiple offenses and loss of a hunting license for life.
Animal rights groups say joining the interstate pact would help change the state's reputation as a safe haven for animal poachers.
"Right now, we're known as a paradise for poachers," said Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society of the United States. "They know they can come here and poach animals and not face consequences, even if they've been convicted of illegal hunting in their own state."
Under the pact, hunters who've been convicted of poaching or had their licenses revoked in other states would be prevented from getting one in Massachusetts.
Hunters on board
Hunting groups, which seldom side with animal rights organizations on proposed legislation, say they are on board with the tougher fines and penalties.
They say it will help crack down on poachers who take deer and other wild game illegally.
"We need to protect our resources, so that they're around for future generations," said John Kellstrand, president of the Massachusetts Sportsmen's Council, a statewide umbrella group representing local hunting and fishing clubs. "We need to stop the illegal hunting, so we generally support this proposal."
In the past two years, state environmental police have reported nearly 1,500 hunting violations ranging from arrests of suspected poachers to hunting without a license or on wildlife refuges and other lands where hunting is off limits, according to the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Police made 134 arrests for illegal hunting violations during that period and issued nearly $44,000 in fines, according to the state agency.
But supporters of the tougher sanctions say poaching is rampant in the state's forests and parkland and goes mostly unpunished.
Wildlife officials estimate that for every animal that is harvested legally, at least one other is poached.
"This is happening everywhere," Harris, of the Humane Society, said. "You name the species and it's been poached."
Harris and other supporters of the measure point out that the proposed fines and penalties are still far less stringent than many other states.
In Alaska, a first-offense for hunting, fishing or trapping out of season carries a minimum fine of $10,000 and up to one year in jail. Poaching in Colorado can result in a $100,000 fine for repeated offenses and up to three years in jail. North Dakota, Washington and Wyoming classify poaching as a felony charge.
The proposal must still pass the House of Representatives before it lands on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk for consideration.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted: to Mass Sportsmen's News on Sun, Jan 21, 2018
Updated: Tue, Oct 27, 2020