Hunting and fishing aren't just pastimes and passions in Minnesota — they're a constitutional right.
Anyone who tries to get between hunter and hunted on public lands risks a ticket and misdemeanor citation for hunter harassment. For several years, citations have been on the rise.
More than a dozen people have run afoul of Minnesota's hunter harassment laws so far this year — and not for the reasons you might expect.
So far this year, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers have issued one ticket and 16 warnings for interference with someone attempting to hunt or fish on public lands.
"You really can't interfere in any way with someone lawfully taking game," said Greg Salo, operations manager for the DNR's division of enforcement. The agency hands out a smattering of harassment citations every year: one ticket and four warnings in 2012, four tickets and five warnings in 2013, six tickets and five warnings last year.
While Minnesota quietly issues tickets, neighboring Wisconsin is stepping up its battle against perceived hunter harassment. Proposed legislation makes it a crime — punishable by up to nine months in jail or a $10,000 fine — for animal rights groups to snap photos of hunters, even from a distance. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Clear Lake, sponsored the bill at the request of bear hunters unnerved by animal welfare activists who they said were trailing them with cameras — an activity not covered by the state's existing hunter harassment law.
The activists "spent the summer and fall harassing bear hunters," said Jarchow, whose bill passed out of committee last week by a vote of 14-1. "There were folks that didn't want to leave their kids at home, because this guy had followed them around and knew where they lived."
Opponents of the legislation argued at an earlier public hearing that people with cameras have just as much constitutional right to be on public land as people with guns do. The Hunter Rights bill could head to the Assembly floor early next year.
In Minnesota, there have been a few high-profile clashes between hunters and animal welfare activists — a bear researcher got off with a warning in 2007 after angrily confronting a hunter who shot a young bear he had been studying; activists launched an unsuccessful court challenge to the harassment law after 14 people were arrested during a 1994 protest against bow hunters who were culling deer in a Scott County park. But most incidents involve people more worried about property rights than animal rights.
In most cases, Salo said, the angry person splashing around in their canoe in front of a duck blind, or trying to chase off an angler, believe, wrongly, that the public lands or waterways are "theirs" — the lake near their house or the woods near their cabin.
Hunter harassment is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. A ticket issued in the field runs $300 plus court costs, although officers can reduce that to a warning if the culprit seems unlikely to repeat the offense. New computer software makes it easier for agents in the field to check for repeat offenders.
"We take it pretty seriously," Salo said. "We put a lot of effort into providing public land to hunt, [to] make it accessible for everybody. To have someone come out and try to interfere with that right? We'll write the ticket."
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008 • @stribrooks