Coming on the heels of the illegal killing of a mature bull elk this past year, there has been new legislation proposed in the Missouri House of Representatives. The large bull found on government land back in December had had its antlers removed with a chainsaw and then left to rot.
A necropsy conducted by the Department of Conservation, which has spent time and money to repatriate the largest member of the deer family back to the state after an absence of a century and a half, concluded the animal had been shot.
MDC Deputy Director Aaron Jeffries confirmed agents are still working a few leads, but little progress has been made on the case.
The speculation that even if found, the culprit(s) might be liable for only a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $1,000 led to a public outcry among sportsmen as well as the outdoorsmen and women who enjoyed seeing and hearing the magnificent animals.
This, along with an increase in the illegal harvesting of whitetail deer, whose legal hunting is part of a billion-dollar business across Missouri, contributed to Rep. Linda Black (R-Park Hills) sponsoring HB 1971, which specifies that “any person convicted of chasing, pursuing … killing or disposing of certain wildlife in violation of present rules and regulations may be required to pay restitution to the state.”
By the Missouri constitution, wild animals in Missouri belong to the people of the state. HB 1971 would allow a local judge to require restitution of up to $750 for a wild turkey, $1,500 for a whitetail deer and $3,500 for an elk or bear illegally taken.
Although these numbers would bring Missouri closer in line with surrounding states, many feel they would still fall far short of serving as substantial restitution for animals frequently valued in the tens of thousands nor serve as much-needed deterrent, as in some cases they would barely exceed the cost of out-of-state license fees.
Executive Director Brandon Butler of the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) spoke in favor of the legislation at the Committee Hearing on Feb. 16, as did MDC Deputy Director Jeffries. CFM is on record as supporting the bill and Brandon is outspoken for the need to no longer equate game violators as “hunters” breaking the law. Jeffries reinforces the sentiment. “Poaching is unacceptable and simply stealing from all of us,” he said.
The bill has support across the state and the political aisle. Rep. Don Rone (R-Haiti) believes it a good start but thinks, “some of the fines are too low.” His thinking reflects that of organizations such as the Quality Deer Management Association as well as the National Deer Alliance.
Grant Woods, a well-respected leader in this field, would like to see more of a value-based fine and restitution schedule. For example, a game thief in Oregon had to pay the state $50,000 restitution for a bull elk and was banned for life from hunting there and in several other states. A violator in Wyoming was out more than $8,000 and one in Illinois $25,000 for a mature whitetail buck.
Rep. Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood) agrees and is supporting this as a “good start.”
“We need laws that will decrease if not eliminate poaching, and a fine structure with substantial penalties which will deter such criminal action,” she said.
Lavender recognizes that there was once a time of subsistence hunting, but with food pantries and the social infrastructure to assist the hungry, breaking the law is not needed nor should it be tolerated. MDC funds Share the Harvest, in which thousands of legally harvested deer are processed and distributed to the hungry each year.
Currently, Missouri has one of the lower fine schedules around, with some penalties not significantly more than the legal license itself. At this time, HB 1971 is still in committee.
Dr. Eric Mansfield is a retired educator and an author.