Court fight worth watching

Quacker Wacker

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Aug 27, 2001
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Hunting groups, ranchers, fishermen challenge Wash. trapping ban
Associated Press
Oct. 11, 2001 07:51:00
OLYMPIA, Wash. - A coalition of hunting groups, fishermen and ranchers has sued the state, arguing that two initiatives limiting hunting and trapping in Washington violate a legal principle that obligates the state to manage wildlife responsibly.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Citizens for Responsible Wildlife Management and 12 other groups seeks to invalidate Initiative 713, which banned most forms of trapping last year, and Initiative 655, which outlawed bear-baiting and hunting cougar with hounds in 1996.

"For too many years now, our state has allowed special interest groups from outside the state to usurp the state's authority to properly manage and care for our wildlife," said Ed Owens, chairman of Citizens for Responsible Wildlife Management.

Trappers, ranchers and wildlife managers say I-713's ban on body-gripping traps has prompted big increases in wildlife-related damage, including beaver ponds that damage forest land, coyotes preying on sheep and river otters feasting on salmon fry at state hatcheries.

So the plaintiffs are invoking a common-law theory called the "public trust doctrine," which they argue obligates the state to manage its wildlife for the benefit of all Washington's citizens.

The doctrine, which dates back to English common law, trumps laws passed by initiative to limit the methods and techniques available to wildlife managers, the lawsuit argues.

"Ecosystem and wildlife management by citizen initiative contravenes the public trust obligation of the state, exercised through the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies, to undertake and perform scientifically based, comprehensive wildlife management programs."

Both initiatives were challenged earlier on other constitutional grounds. I-655 survived. A Thurston County Superior Court judge has upheld I-713, but Owens said Wednesday he plans to appeal.

Lisa Wathne of the Humane Society of the United States, a chief backer of Initiative 713, defended the legality of both initiatives.

"The state of Washington has an initiative process that allows for the citizens of the state to make laws on issues that they feel strongly about," Wathne said. "Certainly the citizens of Washington have every right to determine that they want the wildlife of this state to be treated in a fair and humane matter."

To prevail, the initiatives' opponents will have to overcome judges' traditional deference to the voters' will, and prove that a general legal concept such as the public trust doctrine overcomes a specific statute.

"There's a fairly high burden to overcome whenever there's a challenge to state law, because state law is presumed to be valid and it has to be proven invalid," said Amy MacKenzie, the assistant attorney general who is defending I-713.

MacKenzie wouldn't comment on Wednesday's lawsuit.

"We're still digesting what this is all about," MacKenzie said.

Along with Citizens for Responsible Wildlife Management, the plaintiffs include: the King County Outdoor Sports Council, the Hunters Heritage Council, the Washington Falconers Association, the Washington State Sheep Producers and Washington Women for Commercial Fishing.

In Washington, the public trust doctrine has been applied to the management of shoreline areas, but not to the management of upland wildlife, as it has in other states.

In a 1999 Colorado case, a Pitkin County judge cited the public trust doctrine when he ruled against that state's 1996 trapping ban in the case of a rancher convicted of illegally killing predators. The ruling was later overturned by a higher court and the rancher has appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

In Connecticut, the doctrine was successfully used this year to open the city of Greenwich's beaches, which had been closed to nonresidents.

Also this year, Wisconsin environmentalists used the doctrine to overturn budget provisions that exempted two wetlands from state regulations on commercial development.
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