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Scott Rall: Who's at the wheel for protecting natural resources?

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer 

So who is at the wheel in Minnesota when it comes to protecting our natural resources?

The answer is not as clear at the rank-and-file citizen might think. I can say that on a local level the conservation officers that I know (and I know many) are some of the most dedicated and committed professionals I have ever met. I interact with them on many occasions during the year.

They attend field days for firearms safety programs, present information to the public at many different venues and even allow me to interview them for articles that appear in this space. I see them at state meetings and, other than there are too few of them and their territories are too large to cover, they do a great job.

Now you can hear one of the stories that make their job almost impossible. There is a case in Minnesota now winding its way through the courts that involve the sale illegal sale of fish and multiple other wildlife violations. There is a federal law called the Lacy Act that prohibits the transport and sale of game and fish. These rules are in place to reduce the poaching and over-harvest of our natural resources for the personal gain of the individual. These are federal charges and come with stiff penalties.

The case is called the Squarehook action. A large number of people (30 or more) that include both tribal and non-tribal members were caught and charged under the Lacy Act of the illegal transport, purchase and sale of fish. These fish were mostly walleyes netted from lakes like Winnibigoshish, Red Lake and Leech Lake. The total value of the fish involved were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A federal judge just tossed out the charges against several of the tribal members citing the Indian treaties that are in place that allow tribal members to harvest fish. Nowhere is it printed that they can sell these fish for personal gain. He believes the place to try this case is in a tribal court.

A different judge just upheld the charges against a different group of tribal members and allowed the case to proceed in federal court..

How can this happen? Same rules and laws and differing judges come up with completely different conclusions. I am confused. There is talk that these same members might be charged in tribal court and this is going to play out over the next several months. All of the parties involved are waiting to see what the other one does.

Looks and sounds a lot like the game of who blinks first. Courts and appeals and delays and more delays. All I want is to see the persons involved in the illegal activity punished to the full extent of the law, and that means everybody. It does not matter at all if the person is a tribal or non-tribal member.

What I don’t want to see is substantially different fines and penalties for different groups of folks. Fair is fair and justice is supposed to be blind to these kind of issues.

I can only imagine what its like to be the COs in this case and see the bad guys go free on what seem like a locked up tight case. I have said over and over that the only deterrent to game and fish violations is the possibility of getting caught, and with COs spread so thin the next line of defense is to make the penalties so expensive that the average Joe would not even consider the actions that could cost them their house.

That might be over the top, so let’s say that it should at least make a big dent in a person’s finances. This state has no clear driver on this issue. I spoke with a fisheries expert a few months back about the co-management of Mille Lacs Lake between the DNR and the Indian tribes and he was very clear on the point that the DNR manages the lake and includes the wishes and wants of the tribes. Everyone wants to be in charge, and with too many cooks in the kitchen you are bound to have troubles.

When an issue comes up, we can’t even figure out what court to charge the perpetrators in. We have two completely different court systems and two completely different natural resource management agencies which has to cost twice as much as one, and the taxpayers are picking up the tab for both. Seems pretty inefficient if you ask this small business owner. When it comes to taxpayer money the purse stings are much looser than in a family household.

We are dealing with these issues constantly in our state and have been doing so for decades. I don’t think it will ever end. I hope we get a satisfactory outcome in the Squarehook case and will watch and report as the facts come to light.

On a different note, the ice is getting thicker and ice anglers are out on area lakes, but I caution you to be careful. I have been a little scared of first ice my whole life and have fallen in on two different occasions in my 52 years. Both times I thought I was on safe ice. The geese have kept the ice open and the current can make it six inches thick in one spot and two inches only five feet away. Travel in the ice with care.

If it is too cold to go ice fishing, consider stopping in at my day job at LPL Financial. We are having a grand opening and holiday open house on Tuesday Dec. 17th from 1-6 p.m.

The new office is on the corner of Oxford Street and Smith Avenue across from the Hy-Vee gas station. We can talk dogs, outdoor issues and share a little holiday cheer. Business talk is for another day.