Reformers take aim at Mass. label: “Poacher’s Paradise”

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Penalties for illegal hunting would increase and Massachusetts would join a national compact to track poachers under legislation that advocates say would bring state hunting laws into the modern era and protect endangered animals.

The bill (H 904 / S 587), filed by Reps. Lori Ehrlich and Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Sen. Michael Moore would enter Massachusetts into the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, a network that seeks to reduce wildlife poaching through information sharing across state lines and reciprocal recognition of license suspensions and revocations for fishing, hunting, and trapping.

“Today, Massachusetts is a poacher’s paradise. Our penalties are too low to be more than a slap on the wrist or the cost of doing business and as a non-member of the compact, uniquely vulnerable to poachers,” said Stephanie Harris of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Massachusetts and Hawaii are the only two states not in the compact, though legislation is pending on Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s desk that would enter the Aloha State into the national compact.

“This legislation would update the commonwealth’s outdated penalties for illegal hunting, some of which have not been updated in a century and right now, currently, they amount to little more than a slap on the wrist,” Ehrlich said Tuesday at an Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture virtual hearing.

Laura Hagen, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said joining and implementing the compact is a two-part process. The first stage, she said, is passing legislation to incorporate the compact and authorize the Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game to join the compact.

Should the state pass the legislation, MassWildlife and the Division of Marine Fisheries would have a year to promulgate regulations around implementing the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, according to the bill. Hagan said once that happens, there are “minimal costs going forward.”

“There is a nominal $500 annual fee, which funds the cost of secure database storage and management and a minor time commitment from staff that is typically managed by existing personnel, so no new staff should be required,” she said. Compact membership, Hagan said, does not require Massachusetts agencies to suspend a license if it has already been suspended in another state.

“It simply adds another tool to our agency’s tool belts and ensures that they have access to the information that they need to determine where an out-of-state violation would or should result in license suspension here in the commonwealth,” she said.

Harris, who is a senior legislative affairs manager at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said Maine’s compact administrator has received phone calls from people out-of-state asking whether Maine is a member.

“It is only a matter of time before folks calling Maine call Massachusetts and learn that we’re a non-member and essentially open to business for poachers,” Harris said.

Christopher Borgatti, a member of the New England Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the commonwealth’s initial membership to the compact is “long overdue.”

“Simply put membership protects wildlife, supports law-abiding hunters and anglers, and provides the Massachusetts Environmental Police additional resources to combat poachers and other wildlife criminals,” he said. “Massachusetts has always led the way in terms of the protection of animals but for some reason, we’ve missed the opportunity to work collaboratively with other states and stop wildlife criminals.”

Harris said the legislation mainly updates penalties for illegal hunting “to strike a balance between modernizing certain century-old penalties without becoming too punitive.”

For instance, she said, the bill increases fines for hunting in a wildlife sanctuary from a range of $50 to $100 to a range of $100 to $500 and allows for the suspension of licenses for up to three years for a first offense and up to 10 years for a third offense.

“It similarly updates fines and license suspensions for other violations unchanged since the 1930s, when there was a major boom in state wildlife laws because certain species were hunted or trapped nearly to extinction,” Harris said. “And for context, a fine of $50 in the 1930s would, keeping up with inflation, be about $800 today. These updates are more modest.”

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