State Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said when he decided to sponsor Senate File 108, he called it “a courtesy bill.”
That innocent-sounding description crumbled pretty quickly. “The misunderstanding of the bill is incredible,” Driskill said after the Senate adjourned Thursday. “The discontent and actual hatred that’s been stirred up by it has been shocking to me.”
What happened to make the measure go so far off course, even before the full Senate debated it? While Driskill saw the bill as a way to bring some civility to the occasional tense situation that may exist between game wardens and landowners, the Wyoming Game Wardens Association (WGWA) saw a bill that would severely limit wardens’ ability to do their jobs and make it easier for landowners to abuse their hunting privileges. Cases such as the Carter Ranch in Ten Sleep and the more recent Sagebrush Ranch case near Gillette, where landowners profited illegally by selling their landowner licenses to non-resident hunters, would be more difficult to investigate and prosecute. The bill would encourage this kind of illegal behavior as a result, WGWA believes.
Driskill said he would “reassess” the bill over the weekend. “I’m sitting on it until Monday,” he said. “I would say there’s a very high likelihood that I would either ask for it to be removed from the [general file] or ask the majority floor leader to sit on it.”
SF 108 would make it a law for game wardens to notify landowners when they need to go on their property. Driskill said this is common practice in the agriculture world, but it’s not universal. With a few operators, he explained, there is “a great animosity between landowners and the Game & Fish Department.”
“This bill aimed to fix that,” the senator said. “What it really said is you should have the courtesy to ask landowners if it’s OK to go on.”
“Our game wardens are there to protect and manage the animals we hunt and fish; our wildlife is public,” said Catherine Thagard, director of a nine-group coalition, the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Deer, elk and all other species do not recognize our man-made boundaries, and the responsibilities of a game warden do not end when an animal crosses a property line from public to private.
“From a sportsman’s perspective, we unanimously oppose the bill because it enables de facto privatization of our public wildlife once they jump the fence,” Thagard added.
The bill could potentially violate the “Open Fields Doctrine,” according to the WGWA, a constitutional premise developed from a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1984. The high court determined that “open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Fourth Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance.”
“Government agents can cross fences and trespass without a warrant or reasonable suspicion,” the court determined, “because fencing and ‘no trespassing’ signs cannot change the non-private character of an open field.”
Dan Beach of the WGWA called the language in SF 108 “extremely vague.”
“It states that no officer could enter any private land without the permission of the landowner or lessee,” he said. “This law would make it illegal for a sheriff’s deputy or game warden to simply drive up to a ranch house to speak with a landowner for routine communication without permission.”
The bill was portrayed as going to cause a big rift between landowners and the Game & Fish Department,” Driskill related. “It caused a lot of stress.”
He noted game wardens tell landowners when it’s necessary for them to enter their property, but the practice isn’t mandatory. He said he had several constituents who asked him to sponsor the measure.
“In truth, everything that [game wardens do] now that works, this bill did nothing to restrict.”
While the bill tried to protect landowners’ right to privacy, Driskill claimed it also benefited Game & Fish employees.
“My thought is it was probably a good way to sort out the bad eggs,” the Republican said. “If someone’s got their gates locked and said ‘absolutely not, you cannot come on my place,’ if I was the guy in the red shirt, I’d probably have a bit of heightened suspicion about what’s going on and maybe pay a little more attention around that place.”
SF 108 contained several exceptions in which the law would not have to be followed. A game officer authorized to enforce the act could enter any private land without permission if reasonable suspicion or probable cause existed that a violation of law had been, was being, or was about to be committed.
Other exceptions included investigating a report of illegal hunting, fishing or trapping activity; to dispatch crippled or distressed wildlife; or to respond to emergency situations, accidents or other threats to public safety.
Even with those exceptions, the bill hamstrings a warden investigating illegal hunting or fishing activities, according to WGWA.
Ultimately, Driskill said, he will probably pull the plug on his own bill because he does not want it to damage the good working relationship he said he has with the department.
The lack of courtesy in times of conflict, he concluded, “leads to heartache and hard feelings.” But the bill he sponsored to make the situation better clearly wasn’t the answer.
“I got numerous emails and phone calls that claimed this was going to destroy game birds and damage the protection and propagation of wildlife, which isn’t true,” the lawmaker maintained. “I really felt like we could have fought for it on the [Senate] floor, if we felt like it.
“But I think all it would have done is what [opponents] predicted – you’re going to cause a rift at some point.”