Photo | Courtesy Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources | The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has an adult mentoring program to show young hunters the laws and ethics of the sport.
There are many ways to discern the season without ever looking at a calendar. The temperature of the air, the angle of the sun, the color of leaves, the locations of schools of fish. But you know it’s winter in South Alabama when violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act begin to appear on the federal court docket.
Every year, between November and February, several petty offense complaints are filed against hunters across the area, most often for “taking of migratory game birds by the aid of baiting” or “on or over any baited area.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has only a single enforcement agent in the state, but according to Special Agent Stephen Clark, who oversees a 10-state region from an office in Atlanta, the federal agency relies on state support to enforce interstate hunting laws and bring the seasonal criminal cases.
“Baiting is the placement, directly or indirectly, of greens, seed, salts or any other feed for migratory birds, scattered for the purpose of attracting and luring migratory birds specifically for hunting,” Clark said. “Here in this part of the country, we primarily deal with waterfowl, but we also typically see hunters targeting mourning doves.”
Clark said the law is complex and species-specific, but all hunters should be aware of the constraints.
“With waterfowl, typically a blind is set up with duck decoys around it in a pond or field setting,” he said. “For mourning doves, hunters will line and walk the field to harvest.”
But if hunters are targeting waterfowl in a field, they are not allowed to manipulate the crop on the field. Dove hunting fields can be manipulated, but hunters cannot introduce non-native vegetation or agricultural crops to attract birds.
“We are protecting birds that are listed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Clark explained. “It typically starts in early fall, but waterfowl season begins in early November.”
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) enforcement efforts typically focus on the hunting season, hunting methods and bag limits, but state law also prescribes that any violation “is also a violation of federal regulations.”
“Quite often, the information we receive about violations can come from a number of resources,” Clark said. “The public may call us and let us know, but oftentimes we partner with state agencies requesting assistance and we may work alongside them on illegal baiting, commercial operations selling illegal hunts, or other egregious violations taking place.”
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act classifies hunting over a baited area as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and six months in prison. If an individual is accused of placing the bait, it’s a Class A misdemeanor with fines up to $100,000 and as much as a year in prison. Organizers of illegal corporate hunts can face enhanced penalties of twice those amounts. But Clark said a single conviction and fine usually gets the message across.
“I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now and in terms of particular cases, with the number of agents we have and dealing with U.S. District Courts, we try to focus on more egregious violations,” he said. “But we’ve worked a multitude of cases year to year; it just depends on the amount of intel we get. Quite often we deal with repeat offenders and generally, those repeat offenders knew what they were doing. But at times we come across hunters who are not aware and it’s also our job to educate the public and make sure they are compliant.”
In 2016, the most recent report available, FWS reported investigating 520 violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act nationwide, 13 of which were in South Alabama. This season the docket has been a little lighter, with just five cases filed since September. According to court records, most defendants typically plead guilty, but Clark said the agency still must build a strong case.
“There are some standards we have to prove and it’s a bit higher than some other violations,” he said. “We have to show knowledge of the baiting, particularly as it relates to placement of bait. When hunting over bait, we have to prove a violator knew or reasonably should have known. Sometimes it takes some complex investigation.”
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