Add bird feeding to a growing list of seemingly harmless activities that can get you into serious trouble with the law.

Ken Borton of Gaylord found out the hard way that feeding birds in his backyard would be ticketed by Department of Natural Resources and Environment conservation officers. According to the DNRE, Borton did not do enough to keep deer away from his bird feeder. Fortunately for both Borton and common sense, Otsego County District Court Judge Patricia Morse dismissed the ticket on the grounds that the deer-feeding ban was "unconstitutionally vague." DNRE has requested the Attorney General's office to appeal the decision. The Michigan Legislature has also entered the fray by introducing House Bill 6234 sponsored by Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing that clarifies the feeding ban by exempting "incidental feeding" of other animals. The DNRE opposed House Bill 6234 in legislative testimony.

Clarifying the deer baiting ban by legislative action would be helpful but it may not get at the root of the problem of over zealous enforcement by DNRE conservation officers. To save money, DNRE has increasingly turned in recent years to hiring cops and then training them in the conservation end of the job. The hiring of conservation officers with law enforcement backgrounds may save the state money but it can lead to a change in the culture of conservation officers, which only serves to put enforcement ahead of compliance.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by an experience related to me by a professional acquaintance who is an avid sportsman who hunts around the world and in Michigan. While hunting elk in Colorado he was approached by a conservation officer who politely informed him that state regulations require that he change hunting locations the following day so that he would be not be out of compliance. He thanked the officer and moved his camp. He commented to me that he appreciated the attitude that that officer in Colorado, who was interested in helping him be in compliance with the law. He went on to say that his experiences hunting in Michigan lead him to believe that a more likely outcome here would be for a conservation officer to wait for him to be out of compliance and then issue a ticket.

Michigan conservation officers have a tough job and deserve our respect and support. In future recruiting for conservation officers, however, the DNRE should place a higher priority on a love for the outdoors and an appreciation of outdoor recreation instead of a law enforcement background. Maybe that way there would not be a need for legislation like House Bill 6234.    

 

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Russ Harding, a former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is senior environmental analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Property, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.