Some irked that state agency could gain policing powers

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Participants sit around tables discussing a vision document for the California Department of Fish and Game and Fish and Game Commission Dec. 8 in Redding, Calif. The meeting drew nearly 100 people.

Department says focus will be on large-scale poaching

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

REDDING, Calif. -- A state agency that's been at odds with farmers over water diversions may get new policing powers under a set of draft proposals floated in four public meetings this week.

The Department of Fish and Game could get more wardens who would have updated equipment, more authority to gather evidence and an Environmental Crimes Unit specializing in investigation of water pollution and streambed habitat destruction.

In addition, a "cadre of experienced prosecutors" would staff a special prosecutor's office in Sacramento to "assist all county district attorneys" in trying violators of the Fish and Game Code.

To pay for the additional activities, fines would be increased, as would the number of penalties warranting fines. Some infractions, such as abalone violations, would be raised from misdemeanor to felony.

The proposals are outlined in the first draft of a "strategic vision statement" for the DFG and the Fish and Game Commission that three separate committees have been working on for several months. The project was called for in legislation passed last year.

Clark Blanchard, spokesman for the California Fish and Game Strategic Vision Project, said the proposals to beef up enforcement aimed to stop large-scale poaching and overfishing, not farming.

"Those definitely weren't the conversations," he said, referring to the DFG's conflicts with irrigators on the Scott and Shasta rivers in Siskiyou County. "It was more fish and wildlife, hook and bullet type crimes."

The proposed action items relating to compliance are among hundreds of ideas for improving efficiencies in training, funding, transparency, partnerships and other facets of the two agencies' work mentioned in the 96-page vision document, for which comments are being taken through Dec. 16.

The DFG was criticized by two Northern California lawmakers last year for reported "heavy-handedness" on the part of some wardens who were urging ranchers to obtain special permits for diverting water from the Scott and Shasta, which are key habitat for imperiled salmon.

While meetings in San Diego, Ontario and Fresno drew scant attention, nearly 100 people attended a roundtable discussion forum Dec. 8 in Redding, many of whom expressed misgivings over aspects of the vision statement.

"One of my concerns is, why are we even talking about a special prosecutor?" said Ann Meyer, a Redding tea party activist and former rancher. "We're not talking about dirty politicians. We're just talking about someone maybe getting a fish caught in a net."

Not everyone was against having Fish and Game play a bigger role in endangered species protection, however. Garden shop owner Randy Compton of Round Mountain, Calif., said the DFG should be able to do more to protect wildlife in forests, adding that humans ignore the plight of species at their own peril.

"I think Fish and Game would be well off by focusing intently on fish and game, and forget about the special interests," he said.

While some were upset that they'll only have until Dec. 16 to submit comments, Blanchard said more public input will be taken when second and final drafts are unveiled in 2012. A final vision statement is expected to be delivered next summer to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, which will presumably need to debate and approve portions of it.

Online

California Fish and Wildlife Strategic Vision (first draft): http://vision.ca.gov/docs/Final_CFWSV_Draft_Interim_111122_1502.pdf

Strategic vision online comment form: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/embeddedform?formkey=dGVYVEdvQ2dsRDZsOTlGQWpCdzdYd1E6MQ

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