Should the theft of Minnesota’s fish and wildlife be considered the same as the theft of property or money?

Over the years, legislators have said no.

Now the issue is in the spotlight again after Gov. Mark Dayton pushed a bill last week in the Legislature calling for more stringent penalties and longer license revocations for the most egregious poachers. Dayton also wants a new felony-level penalty for poachers who take fish or game valued at $2,000 or more, citing two recent high-profile poaching cases.

Besides being slapped with a felony, those convicted also could lose all game and fish license privileges for 10 years — double the present penalty.

Currently, no state game and fish violations, no matter how egregious, are charged as felonies in Minnesota.

“If you steal $1,000 of property from someone, it’s a felony, but if you steal $5,000 of fish and wildlife resources, it’s not,’’ said Ken Soring, Department of Natural Resources enforcement chief.

“If a logger were to steal more than $1,000 of trees that, too, would be a felony,’’ he added. “So it’s a felony to steal trees, but there seems to be a reluctance to say people stealing game and fish at that level are felons.’’

The DNR drafted a bill that was introduced earlier in the Legislative session stiffening the poaching penalties, but the felony language has since been removed by legislators reluctant to label a poacher a felon.

The debate isn’t new. In 2001, the DNR proposed similar felony poaching provisions, which legislators also rejected.

DNR officials said Dayton’s public support of the bill last week was in response to the recent well-publicized case, one in western Minnesota in which 28 sets of antlers were seized from a man in an alleged deer poaching case spanning several years, and another in the northwest in which two bull elk were killed illegally.

“The governor knows enough about hunting and fishing to know this is really egregious and the penalties are too light,’’ said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner.

The felony proposal would only affect the most flagrant poaching cases, those charged with taking fish and game valued at $2,000 or more. State statues spell out restitution values of fish and game. Deer, for example, have a restitution value of $500. (Trophy deer are double that amount.) So under Dayton’s proposal, poachers wouldn’t face felonies unless they had taken four or more deer, or five or more bears or turkeys, or 40 or more ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse or salmon, or 67 or more walleyes or northerns.

Opponents argue that it’s difficult to put a value on wildlife, and to do so is arbitrary. And they express concern about labeling someone a felon for poaching fish or game.

But restitution values have been in state statutes for more than 20 years, DNR officials note.

“We have a good system in place,’’ Landwehr said. “And that argument trivializes the value of wildlife. How many do you have to take before it becomes a felony?’’

The stiffer penalties and felony provision wouldn’t kick in for those who accidentally exceed game limits, Soring said.

“It’s not a counting error [to take four extra deer or 67 walleyes over a limit],’’ he said. “I think the governor has it right.’’

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he would support a felony provision, though he said it’s unlikely to pass this session.

“Some say, ‘It’s just hunting.’ Should it be a felony?’ But at the end of day, many of us value our rich tradition of hunting, trapping and fishing in Minnesota. We monetize timber and mining, but do we as a society value our game and fish to the same extent? I think there is a disconnect. We haven’t done it in the past.’’

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his group supports stiffer penalties for egregious game and fish violations, though the MDHA hasn’t taken a position on whether the worst cases should be charged as felonies. As it is, he said, “this bill doesn’t affect true hunters; they follow the law.’’

The bills, with or without the felony provision, won’t affect many people. Soring said the DNR prosecuted eight people in fiscal year 2013 for poaching cases involving restitution of more than $1,000 — now gross misdemeanors.

The state has taken poaching more seriously in recent years. In 2012, the Legislature added one-year license suspension for those convicted of baiting deer. And in 2001, Minnesota joined other states in a compact that affects hunters or anglers who are convicted in any of 45 states for game or fish violations. If a person has a hunting or fishing license revoked in one of those states, they lose their hunting or fishing privileges in all of the others.

Currently 548 Minnesotans are on that list.


Twitter: @dougsmithstrib