How much is a dolphin worth?

LDWF agents check hunters in the field to ensure they are following regulations and within legal limits. (Photo courtesy LDWF)
LDWF agents check hunters in the field to ensure they are following regulations and within legal limits. (Photo courtesy LDWF)

State getting serious about fines for illegal game, fish

There’s an old Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke where Boudreaux gets picked up by a sheriff’s deputy for the illegal taking of an eagle. When Boudreaux finally has his day in court, the judge asks why he shot an eagle, to which Boudreaux replies, “For food.”

The judge knew better to ask his next question, but couldn’t stop himself: “What did it taste like?”

After pondering the question for a moment, Boudreaux said, “It tasted like pelican!”

Of course, this is no laughing matter to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Old Boudreaux, according to the department’s administrative rules, would have been saddled with $4,351.49 in restitution for illegally taking that eagle. (And another $4,351.49 for talking out of school about that pelican.)

You see, every animal and form of aquatic life has been assigned a value by the department. Lawmakers are learning all about these values during the ongoing regular session, especially since the department wants to make it easier for the state to collect such restitution fines.

SB 448 by Sen. Jay Luneau of Alexandria would allow judgements from administrative law judges, which the department uses for these cases, to be considered final for debt collection purposes. Right now, the department has to file a lawsuit in district court to enter into debt collections, and it’s often a rather lengthy process.

The legislation is pending action on the House floor and is just one vote away from being sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for consideration.

As the bill moved through the House and Senate, lawmakers spent a little time learning more about the department’s detailed list of values for animals and aquatic life taken illegally by commercial and recreational means.

“How much is a dolphin worth?” Rep. Mack Cormier of Belle Chasse asked during one hearing. (Marine mammals have a non-game value of $3,481.19.)

“Are menhaden on the list of fish?” asked Rep. Joe Orgeron of Larose. (They are, at 11 cents per pound.)

Rep. Dewith Carrier of Oakdale wanted to know what would happen if he shot an extra squirrel by accident. (One extra tail through your belt loop would be $20.32.)

Over time, these restitution judgements add up. The department is currently sitting on more than 650 of these judgments, which have an outstanding and unpaid balance of $850,000.

Cole Garrett, the department’s general counsel, said the state has an obligation to chase down these dollars.

“When people take animal, fish or wildlife illegally, civil restitution is due to pay back the public trust resource,” he told lawmakers this week.

The legislation would not be applied retroactively, meaning the streamlined path to debt collection status would only be used in future cases. Garrett also said the proposed change is similar to revisions approved by the Legislature last year for minor wildlife violations.

“This maintains due process, but holds people accountable, creates judicial efficiencies and allows LDWF to actually collect judgments for civil restitution,” he added.

Under the proposed legislation, if a final judgment is rendered and an individual refuses to cooperate, wildlife and fisheries officials can then contact the Office of Debt Collection in the state Department of Revenue.

“They have a procedure of notices and letters that have to be sent to anyone prior to us turning the file over to them,” said Bryan McClinton, the undersecretary for finance at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “They are allowed to collect an amount greater than the debt to cover their overhead, but LDWF will receive the full amount of the judgement.”

Without the extra collection steps outlined in the legislation, wildlife and fisheries officials said they would have to rely upon the suspension and revocation of hunting and fishing privileges, which isn’t always enough.

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