Category Archives: wildlife

Senator says TN has too many deer, opposes bill raising penalties for killing them illegally

Outdoors writer Bob Hodge watched a Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources hearing on SB904, which would increase financial penalties for illegally killing big game animals. In a News Sentinel column, he’s somewhat critical of Sen. Frank Niceley’s opposition to the bill on grounds that deer “on on the verge of being a nuisance” statewide.

By putting more teeth in the law, the TLC representative believes some of the folks who are willing to gamble on illegally shooting a deer, bear, turkey or anything else, might think twice if they were facing a four- to five-figure fine.

Niceley wasn’t convinced by the argument because, in his view, poachers are actually doing us a favor because Tennessee is being over run by deer.

He mentioned a town north of Nashville that has a deer population problem and would “welcome” poachers. He mentioned a recent fatality that was the result of a car hitting a deer because there are too many deer.

Poachers? Maybe we should call them community activists.

“I just talked to legal and they said I could take my six counties out of this,” Niceley says during the meeting. “We don’t have a problem. I don’t see any reason for my counties to be in it.”

Poaching not a problem in any of his six counties? A landowner in one of the counties Niceley represents said “It’s like deer hunting is a 24/7 thing here. Road hunters, jack lighting … and it’s year round, not just during deer season.”

The landowner did point out that if you’re going to be hunting off the road and at night, then season dates probably don’t represent a big deterrent anyway.

But Niceley seems to believe poaching is OK because “Deer (are) on the verge of being a nuisance all across the state.”

…(Under the bill) Any deer you get convicted of (illegally) killing in Tennessee would cost you $1,000 and add another $1,000 for an antlered buck. It would be another $500 per point for an 8, 9 or 10 point and $750 a point for anything over 11.

That would mean a 12-point buck could cost you $11,000 and your hunting privileges until the money is paid.

That’s not about deer management. That’s a deterrent to being an outlaw.

Obviously not everybody can tell the difference.

Note: The committee put off a vote on the bill until next week. As Hodge notes in his column, Nicely suggested he may prepare an amendment to exempt the counties he represents from being covered by the proposed new law.

Advancing bills increase penalties for killing some animals, allow allow slayings in self-defense

The House Agriculture Subcommittee has approved separate bills on killing wildlife — one increasing penalties for illegally taking some animals and another declaring protected species can be slain in self-defense.

The self-defense bill (HB135), as amended in the subcommittee, basically mirrors state law on use of lethal force in self-defense against people, said sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, including the so-called “castle doctrine.”

The measure was inspired, Faison said, by his killing of a copperhead snake in his yard after finding the poisonous reptile while nine children were playing in the area. A report on the episode was posted on Facebook and a friend then advised him — accurately, to his surprise after researching the matter, Faison said — that he was in violation of state law by killing the snake and subject to prosecution for a misdemeanor offense.

As introduced, the bill would have applied to slaying wildlife in protection of property as well as people. But the property-protection provision was deleted — with Faison’s approval — after subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, said he and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials were “nervous” that the provision could lead to people “shooting things left and right,” then contending they were trying to protect property in some way.

At one point in the debate, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, asked Faison: “If I’m in my car and that snake shows up, is it OK to kill it?” He noted that the “castle doctrine” in Tennessee has been expanded by the General Assembly to cover self-defense shootings while a person is in a motor vehicle as well as in a home.

No, replied Faison, because the car itself would provide a reasonable defense against snakebite. But, “if a bear was reaching through the window” lethal force would be in order, he said.

The penalty-enhancing proposal by Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, authorizes judges to order anyone illegally killing a deer, bear, wild hog, wild turkey or an elk to pay “restitution” to TWRA. In general, current law sets the minimum fine at $200 for such offenses, though the offender can be subject to other penalties including seizure of any weapons and equipment involved.

Marsh’s bill (HB1185) would add to current law restitution of $1,500 for a male bear; $3,000 for a female bear. For deer and wild turkeys, a basic restitution of $1,000 would be established. But for male deer, the proposal sets up a point system — the more points a buck has, the higher the restitution. For bucks with up to 10 points, it’s $500 per point; for those with more than 10 points, it’s $750 per point. For elk, the minimum restitution would be $1,500.

Sunday column: Legislators deal with snakes, buzzards and jackasses

You might say state legislators are taking a walk on the wild side in the current session, albeit in somewhat meandering fashion, as they consider a bunch of bills that involve the killing or control of Tennessee critters.

Consider last week’s meeting of the House Agriculture Subcommittee, where the two most notable animal actions were:

n Approval of a bill authorizing the killing of wild animals in self-defense (HB135) at the urging of sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby. Faison explained that he was inspired to produce the proposal after killing a copperhead in his yard when a bunch of kids were roaming the premises, then posting about the episode on Facebook — only to have a friend point out he had doubtless violated state law by causing demise of a venomous reptile native to our state. So, having confessed to breaking the law, he set out to provide “some level of protection” to those who, unlike himself, might be prosecuted in the future.

As introduced, the bill would have allowed killing critters when they are threatening property, not just people. That provision was deleted after Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, said it made him — and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency folk — “nervous” about the possibility that “people would just be shooting things left and right” and claiming they were defending something or other.

As amended, the bill mirrors state law on when people can use deadly force against other people, Faison said. Given that law includes a car within its “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” provisions, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, inquired: “If I’m in my car and that snake shows up, is it OK to kill it?”

No, replied Faison, because the car itself would provide a reasonable defense against snakebite. However, “if a bear was reaching through the window,” lethal force would be in order.

n Approved a bill (HB1185) by Rep. Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, that substantially increases financial penalties for illegally killing a deer, bear, elk or wild turkey.

In the case of deer, elk and bears, the bill is blatantly discriminatory on the basis of gender. Illegally shoot a male bear and the penalty — depicted in the bill as restitution to TWRA — is $1,500 (versus as little as $200 now, regardless of gender); for a female bear it’s $3,000. The discrimination is the other way on deer and elk. Illegally killing or possessing a female deer falls under a general $1,000 penalty — the same as for turkeys (again, up from the current $200). But for antlered male deer, there’s a new point system: $500 for each point of the animal’s antlers for those with eight to 10 points (that’s $5,000 for a 10-point buck) or $750 per point when the deceased deer has more than 10 points on its antlers.

The panel also approved a bill (HB1051) that would allow fox hunters to let their dogs chase foxes in more places, more often. Sponsor Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, remarked that the measure deals with “one of the wackiest bills we have had up here.”

The panel put off until this week approval of a bill, already endorsed by a Senate committee, that would decriminalize the killing of black buzzards in Tennessee, even though they are protected by federal law.

The black buzzards are reportedly preying on newborn calves and even trashing property. Pictures shown to the Senate committee of damage from a Jackson County buzzard attack included shots of deceased buzzards that, it would seem, were dispatched illegally under current laws by a homeowner defending his property from attack.

Also approved was a bill (HB1185) that somewhat liberalizes the rules for chasing foxes with hounds. And domestic animals were not ignored, thanks to the panel’s OK of a bill (HB455) that repeals an 1858 statute declaring that the owner of any ”stallion or jackass over 15 months old” is subject to a $5 fine if it roams onto someone else’s property.

Maybe there’s a trend here. At least insofar as buzzards and snakes go, legislators are moving to declare that laws now being unofficially ignored will become officially ignored. That would be honesty in government and a good thing, right?

Perhaps even setting a precedent into areas involving activities of the species Homo sapiens.

That’s not likely, though. Our species is much better represented in Legislatorland than the wild side. There are no lobbyists for buzzards, foxes and snakes — at least not literally.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column written for the News Sentinel, also appearing HERE.

Committee-approved bill legalizes killing federally-protected buzzards in TN

A state Senate committee has voted to legalize the killing of black buzzards in Tennessee even though they are protected under federal law.

Approval of SB204 by the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee came after Charles Hord, executive vice president of the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association, described how the vultures are killing newborn calves across the state and Sen. Paul Bailey displayed photographs showing buzzard damage at a Jackson County home.

“They’re not only destroying livestock. They’ve begun destroying personal property,” said Bailey, R-Sparta.

He said the black buzzard attack, which homeowner James Meadows and his family discovered after returning from a weekend vacation, caused damage totaling more than $25,000 as estimated by an insurance adjuster — more if uninsured damage was included.

The buzzards had “begun to eat” the plastic seat covers of a motorcycle and a jet ski, wrecked swimming pool equipment, ripped out insulation and even pecked away parts of the brick beneath windows and the paint on a parked car, the senator said.

“No one can explain why they had actually attacked his house,” said Bailey, adding that he and others had initially “chuckled” at the idea of a scavenger species assaulting a home before seeing documentation.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, repeals a current state law that makes it a misdemeanor crime “for any person to disturb the habitat of, alter, take, attempt to take, possess, or transport a black vulture, also known by the name Coragyps atratus.”
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TWRA proposing 22 percent increase in hunting, fishing license fees

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is proposing increases in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses and related fees, averaging about 22 percent. The proposal comes up for a vote at a Jan. 15-16 meeting of the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission at Union City.

The basic annual resident hunting and fishing combination license would increase from $28 to $34 under the proposal. The annual resident “sportsman’s license” – which covers all permits otherwise needed at different fees for activities ranging from big game hunting, trout fishing, duck hunting, wildlife management area admission, archery hunting and the like – would increase from $136 to $166.

In a news release (HERE) TWRA notes the increase is the first since 2005 (when there was a 35 percent increase) and the second in 25 years. It’s needed because the agency’s costs have increased even though it has been reducing staff and taking other economy measures.

Excerpt from the release:

“The reality is that managing our wildlife and fisheries has never been more expensive than it is today,” said TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter. “Our objective with this proposal is to spread the cost of these programs across more user groups who utilize Tennessee’s public lands and waters.”

…If approved, the new fee structure would go into effect on July 1, 2015. Tennessee hunting and fishing licenses expire on Feb. 28, and new licenses will be on sale at the current prices from mid-February through the end of June.

Highlights include: incremental increases for resident hunting and fishing licenses; elimination of certain short-term non-resident licenses; a new fee for professional hunting and fishing guides; new senior citizen license options; and fees related to the use of TWRA firing ranges, as well as for horseback, off-highway vehicle and mountain bike riders whose activities have a maintenance impact on state Wildlife Management Areas.

A full list of the existing old fees and the new proposed fees is HERE.

TWRA practice of euthanasia for wildlife pets criticized

Enforcement of the state’s law prohibiting possession of wild animals as pets – they’re typically killed after being seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency – has come under increasing attack, reports the Chattanooga TFP, providing details of recent raccoon seizures and the trauma suffered by those who had taken the animals in.

“Other states don’t have this extreme regulatory scheme,” said Chris Jones, a Chattanooga attorney who specializes in wildlife law. “Tennessee is made fun of, just how Draconian it is.”

Jones has likened the TWRA to the Gestapo. Others have called Tennessee’s wildlife laws “communist,” and the agency that enforces them “over the top.”
Here, residents aren’t allowed to take any native species from the wild, not even turtles, said David Favre, a professor at the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University College of Law.

Many other states, such as Kentucky and Missouri, have a more moderate approach. Those states allow residents to keep many of the species outlawed in Tennessee.
Snakes, raccoons and turtles are the most common animals that the TWRA takes. They have also taken away people’s pet skunks, squirrels and even vultures. The five-year tally of 266 includes a few seizures of large collections of animals, the biggest being the 53 poisonous snakes that the TWRA took from pastor Andrew Hamblin’s serpent-handling church in LaFollette last year.

In another high-profile case last year, the TWRA took away YouTube celebrity Mark “Coonrippy” Brown’s dancing raccoon, Rebekah.

“Innocent people have been abused by [the TWRA], and it all links to this individual,” said Jones the attorney, arguing that (Walter) Cook, the TWRA gatekeeper to permits, is unfair in his enforcement of the law.

…Cook disagrees. He said Tennessee’s strict laws and rigid enforcement make its captive wildlife program the best in the country. Sitting in his Nashville office among his hunting trophies — mounted fish, tail feathers and an antlered skull — he explained that 23 other states have asked for a copy of Tennessee’s laws to help shape their own.

“It lays out in very clear manner what you can and can’t do,” said Cook. “And not allowing the personal possession of dangerous wildlife is very appealing to most citizens of every state.”

Snake-handling preacher loses 53 snakes to handle

JACKSBORO, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee preacher who used poisonous snakes in his religious practices won’t face criminal charges. But he also won’t get back the 53 serpents wildlife officials seized from his Tabernacle Church of God.

It makes no difference that a grand jury declined to indict Andrew Hamblin on Wednesday; the snakes are contraband, “so we can’t hand them back,” Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Matt Cameron said.

“If a drug user is acquitted, you don’t give the drugs back to him,” Cameron said. “It’s a similar situation.”

This past fall, Hamblin appeared on the National Geographic Channel reality show “Snake Salvation” dancing while holding rattlesnakes and copperheads. That appearance is what wildlife officials say tipped them off. Hamblin was charged with possession of Class 1 wildlife, a species inherently dangerous to humans. The misdemeanor offense is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, plus a $2,500 fine.

The preacher pleaded not guilty at his November arraignment and told reporters he intended to fight the charges on religious freedom grounds. He is among a small group of Christians who practice snake-handling based on a Bible passage in which Jesus tells his followers of signs that will accompany those who believe. The signs include being able to pick up serpents without being harmed.

On Wednesday, the grand jury took the unusual step of granting a request by Hamblin to address the panel. Members later declined to indict Hamblin, prosecutor Lori Phillips-Jones said.

Phillips-Jones said her office could present the case to the grand jury again in the future if there is new evidence.

The snakes seized from Hamblin’s Tabernacle Church of God were taken to the Knoxville Zoo. Cameron said the zoo officials say 32 of the snakes have died from parasites. He said the remaining 21 snakes are not healthy enough to be released into the wild and also cannot be kept with other captive snakes because of the parasites. He said the wildlife agency is working with veterinarians to see what options are available.

Hunters bag at least 118 sandhill cranes in first open TN season

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials say hunters took at least 118 sandhill cranes during the state’s first season, which ended Jan. 1.

Biologists told WTVC-TV ( that a handful of additional harvest reports would likely filter in.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Chief of Wildlife Daryl Ratajczak said the state provided 1,200 harvest tags. He says that’s roughly a 10 percent harvest rate.

Hunting was restricted to an area south of Interstate 40 and east of Tennessee Highway 56.

Opponents of the hunt had expressed fears that allowing the hunt might scare the birds away from the Hiawassee Refuge, where they winter, but Ratajczak said there’s no evidence that occurred.

Tennessee resident Tony Sanders said his endeavors to hunt the birds were unsuccessful.

“They are the hardest bird to pattern I’ve ever seen,” Sanders said. “We were hunting an area right beside the refuge. But one day, they would fly one direction, the next day, another. There were about 10 of us hunting the area, and I think we got a total of five birds.”

Ratajczak said state officials will decide later whether to make any changes before the next hunt.

“The zone where we are allowed to have sandhill hunting is set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said. “We did choose to cut back the season length and number of permits that would have been allowed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So we could potentially increase the number of permits allowed or the season. But there have been no decisions made. That’s something we’ll be looking at.”

TWRA cites snake-handling preacher for illegally keeping reptiles, seizes 50 snakes

LAFOLLETTE, Tenn. (AP) — An East Tennessee preacher who has appeared on national television demonstrating use of snake handling has been cited with possession of venomous snakes.

Media report 50 venomous snakes were seized at Andrew Hamblin’s church, Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette (luh-FAH’-lut). The snakes were being taken to the Knoxville Zoo.

Hamblin, who has appeared on the National Geographic television show “Snake Salvation,” is scheduled in Campbell County General Sessions Court next week.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer Matthew Cameron says TWRA authorities from Knox and Campbell counties asked Hamblin at his home Thursday if he had venomous snakes at his church and he took them there.

He is charged with the misdemeanor of possessing Class 1 wildlife, a species inherently dangerous to humans.

Audit finds credit card, equipment problems at TWRA

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has failed to adequately track credit card expenses or report lost or stolen equipment, according to a state audit released Monday and subject of a Tennessean article.

The state comptroller’s office says that its auditors found dozens of problems with credit card purchases, including a violation of purchasing limits and nine transactions in which employees of the TWRA paid for items prohibited under state policies.

The comptroller also says the TWRA has not fixed problems related to its management of state-owned equipment, despite being asked to address the failings in two previous audits over six years. Those deficiencies have led to equipment being missing for as long as four years without being reported. (Note: full audit HERE)

Auditors did not suggest criminal wrongdoing or assign blame for the mistakes, most of which appeared to involve small items or sums of money. In its official response, the TWRA concurred with the audit’s findings, and in many cases, officials said, they already have undertaken steps to address the problems.

…The audit comes ahead of a review next year by the state legislature of the commission and the TWRA, which oversees and enforces the state’s hunting, fishing and boating laws. Claiming mismanagement, critics in the legislature succeeded last year in forcing some changes to the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, including the addition of two commissioners, but they may demand more.

“It looks like the agency is out of control,” said state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, the East Tennessee lawmaker who has been the agency’s most frequent critic.