Senate Wildlife shoots down ODWC ‘priority’ bill

Senators balk at moving hunting, fishing license fees to administrative rules process

A view looking up at the State Capitol dome. Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors photo.

By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF

The Senate Agriculture and Wildlife Committee shot down a bill that the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation labeled a priority early Monday before it had a chance to go anywhere.

The Senate Agriculture and Wildlife Committee voted 9-5 against SB 1709 by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, even after the author offered to “strike the title,” which essentially recognized it would require amendments as it moved forward.

Thompson introduced the bill with an immediate litany of statements to contradict  what he characterized as misleading emails he started receiving Friday and over the weekend  “two hours before it was even on the agenda.”

Emails and calls from constituents said the bill threatened private property rights and gun rights, that feral hogs could no longer be killed via helicopter, and warned that the state’s Wildlife Commission was filled with “yes men” who do the Wildlife Department’s bidding, he said.

Third attempt to pass

This marks the third attempt by Wildlife Department and the Commission to move hunting and fishing licenses and fees management to an administrative rules process that would match the way hunting and fishing seasons and bag limits are set, rather than being set by legislators.

A House version of the bill, HB 4086, by Thompson and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston remains active and has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Wallace. That bill, or a version of it, must pass a committee this week to meet a March 3 legislative deadline.

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Department of Environmental Quality, and rural water districts are allowed to set fines and fee schedules, so this is not new ground for the state, Thompson said.

Three years ago the agency touted its first introduction of the bill by reporting it had hired third-party national consultants in an attempt to simplify rules and fees for hunters and anglers while modernizing the department’s license structure. The idea was to better retain the public’s interest in hunting and fishing by making the rules easier and to deal with rising costs as many license fees were set nearly 20 years ago.

The hunting and fishing license regulations contain more than 150 types of tags and fees that could be pared down to 40 or 50, Thompson said.

Thompson said he sensed apprehension and tried to put committee members at ease.

Mixed messages

“I’m concerned that we’re allowing a lot of messaging that’s been out there to cloud the conversation,” he said. “They said it repeals being able to shoot hogs from helicopters, not in the bill, repeals private land ownership, not in the bill, that it repeals being able to use a weapon, takes away our gun rights, not in the bill,” he said.

“Oh, but it does,” said Don Spencer, Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association president. Members of his group were responsible for a portion of those emails.

In order to move the license fees and rules from those set in statute to the administrative rules process, existing exemptions and other rules would be stricken. The public would have to trust the Wildlife Department to put those rules back into regulation, he said.

“If you look at all those repealers at the end, one of them would repeal a law to shoot feral hogs that we fought too hard to get, to then just leave it in the hands of the Wildlife Department. That would take away one of our Second Amendment rights,” he said. “We do not trust them to put it back in. You’re giving a bureaucracy too much power.”

Matters of trust

Prior to Monday’s meeting, Wildlife Department legislative liaison Corey Jager acknowledged trust could be a hurdle with some in making the change from the outdated statute process to the more nimble administrative rules.

“If there are specific exemptions people are really concerned about those could be written into the bill or kept in statute,” she said. “There are some things to be figured out but we are looking at more than a year (Sept. 2023) for this to go into effect. We know it’s going to be hard to prove our intent is right until people see the actual rules, but the new rules will still go before the legislature and still require the governor’s signature.”

The department has no intent to do away with special exemptions for landowners any more than it does for veterans or handicapped hunters or anglers, she said.

“Our intent was to simply move those things over,” she said.

Challenged in committee on some of those exemptions, such as landowners being allowed to fish on their own land without a license, Thompson also countered that an improved Rules Committee processes now in the works will allow the agency and the legislature to work together on a new system that should work better for all.

“We can’t allow our past to dictate our future,” he said in response to a committee question about first waiting to see how the new rules process fares.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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