Game Commission Delivers Testimony Supporting Legislation

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Game Commission Delivers Testimony Supporting Legislation To Increase Fines And Penalties For Wildlife Violations

2/8/08

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania- Pennsylvania Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Protection Director Richard Palmer today delivered testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee in support of House Bill 2205, which is designed to increase fines and penalties for wildlife violations. HB 2205, sponsored by Rep. Edward Staback (D-Lackawanna), who chairs the House Game and Fisheries Committee, was the subject of a public hearing today.

Following is Palmer's prepared testimony:

"Good Morning Chairman Staback, Chairman Rohrer, and members of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. My name is Rich Palmer and I am the Director of the Bureau of Wildlife Protection. Jason Raup is the Assistant Counsel for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and will assist me with answering questions following my testimony on House Bill 2205 on behalf of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The display that you see presented here today represents the types of trophy animals or threatened and endangered species that are being stolen from the citizens of the Commonwealth every year. The Pennsylvania Game Commission wishes to recognize Chairman Staback's leadership in initiating this historic legislation and thank him for allowing us to be part of the collaborative process in developing House Bill 2205.

"As you are aware, increasing penalties for serious violations is one of the operational objectives within the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Strategic Plan, and we welcome the opportunity to work with this committee to accomplish that objective. This bill is the first comprehensive piece of legislation to increase Game and Wildlife Code Penalties since 1987, and we believe it will significantly enhance Wildlife Protection in the Commonwealth. We also believe that there will be widespread public support for this legislation as indicated by surveys that showed 96 percent of Pennsylvania's citizens feel that wildlife protection is a vitally important function.

"The citizens of the Commonwealth have historically recognized the need to protect wildlife and the Commonwealth's first law regarding wildlife was enacted by the legislature in 1721. Several other laws were enacted over the next 174 years, such as the first comprehensive wildlife act in 1873. Unfortunately there was little impact of these laws due to the lack of enforcement and the continued exploitation of wildlife resulting in unprecedented population declines.

"By 1895, the depletion of Pennsylvania's wildlife had reached a crisis stage. Some species had become extinct and others had been extirpated from the Commonwealth. This dramatic depletion of wildlife was due to habitat loss caused by the demand for natural resources of a growing nation, commercial market hunting to supply the extensive demand for wildlife, and a lack of any enforcement dedicated to wildlife.

"The Pennsylvania State Sportsmen's Association petitioned the legislature to create an agency to manage and protect Pennsylvania's wildlife and the Pennsylvania Game Commission was created. Additional statutes were enacted by the legislature and enforced by officers of the Commission, solely dedicated to the protection of wildlife. These protective actions combined with restoration efforts eventually resulted in increasing wildlife populations.

"The Commonwealth places a high value on wildlife as evidenced by the constitutional provisions in Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which elevates the management of natural resources, including wildlife, for current and future generations to a constitutional right of citizens.

"This brief review of Pennsylvania's wildlife management and protection history is important to remember as we begin to consider the need for an increase in penalties that this bill provides. Many people do not understand that many of the threats to wildlife that existed at the turn of the century, such as an illegal commercial market for wildlife, are still threats today. Poaching is prevalent throughout the Commonwealth, not only in rural areas, but in suburban and even urban areas as well, with significant violations and chronic offenders prosecuted each year. In fact, more than 1,000 prosecutions a year have been made for the past three years directly relating to poaching of big game species. The current statutory undervaluation of wildlife due to low penalties can create a public and judicial sentiment that these crimes are not important, and are counterproductive to wildlife protection efforts, as they do not create an effective deterrent to chronic offenders.

"I would like to share with you a synopsis of some case histories to illustrate why we believe that the current penalties are not an effective deterrent to chronic poachers. Unfortunately these are just a few of the cases we have encountered, we have an information package we will be distributing that has far more detail on these aggravated poaching offenses in the section containing Game Commission news releases for your review.

"This rifle was seized on Dec. 21, 2007, from subjects attempting to poach a deer at night. The rifle has a homemade silencer attached indicating it is primarily used for poaching. The two subjects who where apprehended in this case had been previously charged seven times by six different officers, and one of the subjects was currently on hunting license revocation.

"One chronic offender was charged with and convicted of 50 violations over an 11-year period. Forty of these crimes were for poaching wildlife, primarily whitetail deer with trophy class antlers. This subject had his hunting license privileges revoked from the initial violations but continued to poach for an additional 11 years while on license revocation, accruing additional revocation until the year 2060. Fines assessed and license revocation had no deterrent effect on this subject and he did not stop committing wildlife crimes until he was incarcerated for other criminal offenses.

"A second chronic offender was charged with 86 counts of unlawful taking of wildlife, primarily deer and turkey, resulting from a search warrant served by officers while investigating information received from the public about this 10 point buck poached at night. Over 100 pounds of antlers, 54 turkey beards and a diary of criminal activities detailing the poaching of over 300 big game animals over a 22-year period were seized during the search. This chronic poacher began his criminal activities at 13 years old. The subject is on license revocation until 2094, but is suspected in current poaching. The concerned citizens who reported the initial information that started this case were appalled that the law does not provide any jail sentence for this amount of illegally taken wildlife.

"Yet another chronic poacher was charged with killing 126 bucks, however under current law this egregious offense could only be charged as summary offenses with no possibility of imprisonment. Some of the antlers seized in this case and depicted in this photograph are on display here today. How many of these magnificent deer would have provided lawful hunters with days of enjoyment spent hunting them and possibly a trophy of a lifetime.

"Poaching does not just occur at night and out of season, in one in-season killing spree, 5 poachers killed 29 deer over the limit in two days. The current law does not have stringent enough penalties to serve as an effective deterrent to these types of aggravated poaching offenses. One poaching ring killed or wounded almost 50 deer in a six-township area in a period of several weeks. Most disturbingly, this case was a classic example of what we have called thrill killing, where the poachers involved did not make any effort to retrieve or utilize any of these deer, simply shot them for entertainment and left them go to waste where they fell. This type of aggravated offense certainly has an impact on local populations. Poachers from West Virginia and Maryland were charged with 37 counts for shooting trophy whitetail deer and removing only the heads or antlers. Another chronic poacher charged with 11 counts of unlawful taking in 2006, had previously been convicted of poaching offenses in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001 and 2004. The offender had not paid the previous fines when charged with the most recent offenses, and was currently on license revocation. This is yet another clear example that the current penalties and license revocation are not an effective deterrent.

"One officer investigated and prosecuted a chronic poacher he had convicted in two previous years for killing trophy bucks at night with a crossbow and a spotlight. Each time the officer had to return the crossbow and the spotlight to the poacher after the prosecution was completed, including the most recent conviction. The arresting officer expects the crossbow and spotlight he has seized three separate times and had to return, will continue to be used in future poaching by the subject.

"The causes of poaching vary, but the myth that most poachers are committing their offenses to provide food is in reality not even a fraction of a percentage of all cases prosecuted. Often modern poaching is done by criminals driving $30,000 vehicles, using expensive night-vision technology, illegal silencers on the firearms, and often military-style rifles. Most commonly the causes are simply greed, obsessive behavior in collecting antlers; in some cases poachers take great pride in their infamous status in local communities. A disturbing and increasingly common cause is killing simply for thrill with no intention of making use of any part of the animal. An agency news release from February 1, 2008, details a multi-year investigation and prosecution of four subjects who killed for thrill by finding a herd of deer in a field and turning lights on them, then all four would shoot indiscriminately into the herd killing or wounding as many deer as possible and then simply driving on to the next field to do it again. This criminal activity had been ongoing over several months and the arresting officers suspect that the deer that they were able to prosecute this group for was only a small fraction of the animals that they had actually killed or wounded.

"A lesser known cause of poaching is the illegal commercialization of wildlife in the black market trade. Similar to the commercial market hunting that had devastated wildlife populations by the turn of the century; the modern black market trade is growing and can have the same devastating effects to local wildlife populations. The scale of the illegal commercialization of wildlife is staggering. The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking lists some estimates of the global illegal market at ten billion dollars. The organization also states that the unchecked demand of the market is driving many species to the brink of extinction. The black market wildlife trade is often linked to organized crime and involves many of the same criminals and smuggling routes as trafficking in weapons and narcotics.

"In Pennsylvania the most common species and animal parts sold on the black market are venison, velvet antler, fully developed antlers, black bear gall bladders, paws, skulls, claws and hides, and protected bird feathers and talons from eagles, owls, hawks, and song birds. One criminal sold Game Commission undercover officers more than 90 black bear gall bladders during an 18-month investigation, the majority of which were poached. Almost 400 whitetail deer have been purchased by undercover officers in recent investigations. Over 300 other pieces of wildlife have been purchased from the black market that range from otters and bears to chipmunks and protected birds.

"Empirical evidence from enforcement statistics suggests that increased penalties do have a deterrent effect. Prosecutions decreased by more than 2,000 violations, or almost 20 percent, from 1986 to 1988, when the legislature last increased penalties in 1987. Black market criminals have told undercover officers that they deal in wildlife rather than other contraband because there is no imprisonment for dealing in wildlife, regardless of how much they sell. Poachers from other states have confessed to officers that they come to Pennsylvania to poach because although the risk of getting caught is perceived to be higher, the fines are usually lower and there is no possibility of jail time as in their home states.

"This slide shows some of our neighboring states misdemeanor and felony violations as compared to Pennsylvania's. What is important to note is that in New York, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland almost all wildlife violations are misdemeanor offenses, while in Pennsylvania the vast majority of our offenses are graded merely as summary offenses. The only misdemeanor and possibility of imprisonment for poaching is limited to threatened and endangered species. This is a dramatic disparity that we believe this legislation will correct. To make the point more visible this slide compares the penalties specifically for poaching a deer at night with a light. Please note that this offense is graded as a misdemeanor with a penalty of potential imprisonment in every state except Pennsylvania where it is a summary offense with only a $300 to $800 penalty and no possibility of imprisonment. While it may appear that West Virginia has a lower monetary penalty on the bottom end of the sliding scale, it should also be noted that they have a mandatory 10 days in jail. My counterpart in West Virginia tells me that this aspect of the statute provides far more deterrent than the monetary aspects of the penalty. Currently in Pennsylvania a poacher could kill 100 deer and still not have any chance of being imprisoned.

"This slide shows a comparison of the penalties for killing a black bear in closed season. Again you can see the inequity in Pennsylvania's current summary offense penalty of $500 to $1,500 with no possibility of imprisonment, to all the other applicable states where the same offense is graded as a misdemeanor with possible imprisonment in every other state. Also note that in West Virginia, a third offense results in a felony conviction with a $5,000 to $10,000 penalty, a minimum of one year in jail with up to a maximum of 5 years and lifetime hunting license revocation. Currently in Pennsylvania a poacher could kill 3 bears and can only be charged with a summary offense with no chance of imprisonment, and possibly receive a minimum penalty of $1,500. As you contemplate that disparity, keep in mind that on the black market a single bear can be worth several thousand dollars, and the current penalty is often viewed by commercial poachers as merely a cost of doing business.

"As a point of reference to justify why we need to increase penalties in Pennsylvania, consider that, in 1913, the fine for unlawfully killing a deer was $100 and was a significant deterrent. According to the State Data Center, if adjusted for inflation to have the same financial impact to a poacher the penalty would have to be $2,123 in order to be equitable to the 1913 penalty. Currently the penalty for unlawfully taking a deer in Pennsylvania is on a sliding scale that is only $300 to $800, and the most frequently applied penalty is only $300.

"We frequently receive input from the hunting and non-hunting public requesting more severe penalties for major violations. Other state wildlife agencies have indicated that the judicial system tends to treat wildlife violations more seriously when the penalties equal other theft offenses, and poaching is the theft of the Commonwealth citizen's property and should be penalized accordingly. If we make this comparison with Title 18 Pennsylvania Crimes Code theft offense penalties, a theft of property worth over $200 is a misdemeanor of the first degree and punishable by up to 5 years in prison, and if the property is worth over $2,000 the offense is graded as a felony of the third degree with a penalty of up to 7 years in prison. We believe that this legislation provides an equitable penalty structure to other theft offenses when the big game is killed over the bag limit, out of season, or at night with a light in that it grades those offenses as a misdemeanor of the third degree with up to 6 months in prison and a $1,500 to $3,000 penalty. For an aggravated offense or chronic offender that would poach three or more big game animals over the bag limit, out of season, or at night with a light, the offense would be graded as a felony of the third degree with imprisonment of 12 to 36 months and a $10,000 to $15,000 fine.

"In addition to putting aggravated offense on par with other theft offenses including the possibility of imprisonment, this legislation will also create additional deterrence by providing for the forfeiture of firearms and other equipment, except vehicles registered by the Department of Transportation. The increase in the penalties will be equitable with surrounding states, and would make the offenses described in the case histories misdemeanor or felony offenses, making Pennsylvania less attractive to poachers from other states. We believe that a significant deterrent to poaching and the black market trade will be accomplished and become a significant advancement for the protection of wildlife in Pennsylvania.

"This slide shows the current level of offense in Pennsylvania as well as the imprisonment structure of the legislation. As you can see the current Code does contain some misdemeanors, however in relation to poaching they only apply to threatened and endangered species. The other misdemeanor offenses are hunting under the influence, assaulting an officer, and hunting related shooting incidents. The next slide shows the application of these penalties to specific poaching offenses. Poaching a deer at night with a light, over the bag limit, or out of season will be upgraded from a summary offense with a $300 to $800 penalty and no possibility of imprisonment to a misdemeanor of the third degree with a penalty of $1,500 to $3,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment. Poaching three or more big animals at night with a light, over the limit, or out of season will result in a felony of the third degree with 12 to 36 months imprisonment and $10,000 to $15,000 in fines. In addition the legislation extends the "look back" period for chronic offenders from two to 10 years and provides for the application of the felony offense for the third big game animal killed at night with a light, over the bag limit, or out of season. Again, we believe that this structure is comparable to the grading of theft offenses in Title 18 Crimes Code and provides equity for the theft of wildlife, which is what poaching is.

"Other comparisons to Crimes Code offenses can be made as well. For example, under Title 18 PA Crimes Code, shooting a cat is a misdemeanor of the first degree with a minimum fine of $1,000 and up to two years in prison. For a second offense the grading escalates to a felony of the third degree with imprisonment of up to seven years. We believe that it is therefore equitable that poaching a whitetail deer, the State Mammal, be graded as a misdemeanor of the third degree and punishable by up to 6 months in jail. The grading of the offenses for poaching three of the state's mammal should also result in a felony of the third degree with imprisonment of 12 to 36 months. A final comparison can be made to the grading of offenses for agricultural vandalism that is a minimum of a misdemeanor of the third degree if the damage is less than $500 and a maximum of a felony of the third degree if the damage is in excess of $5,000. To put this comparison in perspective, I will use the example of the thrill killing. Currently, if the criminals would shoot three horses or cows they could be charged with a felony of the third degree and the possibility of imprisonment for up to seven years under Title 18 of the PA Crimes Code. We believe that it is then reasonable that if the same thrill killers would shoot three elk the offense should be upgraded compatibly as a felony of the third degree with imprisonment of 12 to 36 months. The fact that wildlife is public property and not personal property should make it no less valuable in the statutory construction of penalties.

"This concludes my testimony and I thank you for the opportunity to testify before the committee today. Game Commission staff will be handing out a three ring binder of information related to this testimony and the need to increase penalties for serious wildlife violations for your review, as well as an actual piece of evidence from one of the case histories, detailing the poaching of several hundred big game animals seized during the service of a search warrant, we would like to have that notebook back after the hearing. We encourage you to read some of the article's provided in the handout to get a sense of the issue at the national level as well as to review some of the Game Commission's news releases on major poaching prosecutions for a higher level of detail on the types of cases we frequently encounter with aggravated poaching and chronic offenders. I have provided the criminal records of two chronic poachers as well as a testament of the need to increase penalties and therefore create deterrence to poaching resulting in enhanced protection of wildlife.

"Again, I would like to thank Chairman Staback and his staff for all their work on this bill. I would be happy to try to answer any questions that the members may have at this time."

Media Contact:
Jerry Feaser (717) 705-6541 or [email protected]
 


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