Tag Archives: TWRA

Missing rifles prompt THP, TWRA suspension from fed gun giveaway program

The Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have been suspended from participating in the federal program that provides surplus military rifles to law enforcement agencies, reports the Tennessean.

In the case of TWRA, the suspension resulted from a gun being stolen from an agency truck. Two rifles provided to the Highway Patrol went missing in 2013 and a personnel shakeup occurred afterwards.

TWRA officials expect to be reinstated to the program, which provides guns it uses to control wild hogs.

The THP captain retired more than a year ago, after two M-14 rifles went missing, according to Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the highway patrol. A lieutenant also was suspended and transferred, she said, and the missing guns remain under investigation.

Both agencies were suspended from the federal program that provides military surplus gear to law enforcement agencies. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the program — which has given $121 million in gear to Tennessee — in the aftermath of clashes between police and demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., last month.

State officials said four agencies have been suspended from the program. The Columbia Police Department and the Claiborne County Sheriff’s Department are the other two.

“Some of (the missing weapons) were uncovered in audits,” said David Roberson, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of General Services. “Exactly why (the rifle) missing is subject to investigation.”

Under the surplus program, local agencies cover just the cost of shipping or transportation and agree to spot checks and inventory reviews. They’re required to report missing, stolen or damaged items.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported two missing M-14 rifles in the spring of 2013. When they couldn’t be found, the “accounting errors” led to the forced retirement of a Special Operations captain and the suspension and transfer of a lieutenant.

Qualls said THP Col. Tracy Trott recently decided to end that agency’s participation in the program altogether because of internal accounting hassles and a decreased need for the equipment. The THP has received more than $3 million in equipment, state data show.

“They may not be acquiring any more equipment. They will have to maintain those on the inventory,” Roberson said.

TWRA, meanwhile, will be reinstated, Roberson said.

A game warden had an M-16 rifle stolen out of his state-owned truck near Tullahoma. Police later made an arrest and located the rifle, Roberson said.

“It was reported immediately, and part of protocol is that you’re automatically suspended,” said Darren Rider, TWRA colonel of boating and law enforcement.

TWRA received 235 M-16 rifles last year — one for each commissioned officer — which were a major upgrade from the pistols and shotguns they carried before, Rider said.

“There was no other funding source to obtain a rifle, so this program certainly made that come to fruition,” Rider said. “It gave us that ability to be better enforcement officers.”

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.”

Senate votes to ban drones from watching hunters, fishermen

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal that would prohibit the use of drones to conduct video surveillance of outdoorsmen in Tennessee without their permission has passed the Senate.

The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville was unanimously approved 31-0 on Thursday.

Bell says his legislation (SB1777) would be added to the state’s current law that protects hunters or fisherman from harassment. He said the law should be updated as technology changes.

The companion bill is scheduled to be heard next Tuesday in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Last year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed and the governor signed a measure to ban most warrantless surveillance by unmanned drones in Tennessee.

TWRA kills snakes

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The remaining 14 snakes that were seized from a Tennessee preacher who used them in his religious practices have been euthanized after officials concluded their condition was too poor to save them.

WBIR-TV (http://on.wbir.com/1aEKOyr ) said the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which had ownership of the snakes, gave the order Monday to euthanize them.

TWRA confiscated more than 50 poisonous snakes from pastor Andrew Hamblin’s Tabernacle Church of God in Campbell County in November. A grand jury exonerated Hamblin earlier this month. Hamblin appeared last fall on the National Geographic Channel reality show “Snake Salvation.”

The snakes were taken to the Knoxville Zoo, where officials said 39 died of multiple parasites and pathogens and the rest were believed to be infected also.

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 (http://bit.ly/KJa3qg) 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.”

Snake-handling preacher in ‘a fight for freedom of religion’

A snake-handling pastor from Campbell County pleaded not guilty Friday to possessing more than 50 venomous snakes, reports the News Sentinel.

Andrew Hamblin, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, entered the plea during an arraignment in Campbell County General Sessions Court, which was packed.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Dec. 17.

Hamblin, 22, who appears on the National Geographic reality television show “Snake Salvation,” is charged with possession of Class 1 wildlife, a species inherently dangerous to humans, which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine per count.

Hamblin could face up to 50 counts, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Matthew Cameron. The snakes were removed from his church earlier this month.

He also could face additional charges for illegal importation of snakes because he had some exotic species.

“This ain’t no longer a fight for snake handling,” Hamblin told reporters and dozens of onlookers before the hearing.

“They came to our church house and that just ain’t right. This is a fight for freedom of religion.

“And the Lord said they shall take up serpents and that is our God-given right in the United States.”

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.

National Wildlife Refuges shutdown, too

News release from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency:
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is informing sportsmen that due to the federal governmental shutdown on Oct. 1, several federal public lands have been impacted.

All Tennessee national wildlife refuges, including Tennessee and Cross Creeks, are now closed. The permitted hunts will be canceled and the refuges will be closed to all public use. All refuge boat ramps are closed and refuges are closed to all fishing.

All refuge roads, observation decks, and hiking trails are closed to all access. All refuge offices and visitor centers are closed.

Land Between the Lakes remains open to hunting, back country camping, and hiking. However, all facilities that are normally staffed are closed. The process of evacuating all paid

campgrounds is underway. The visitor centers are closed. Persons in need of a hunting permit will need to purchase those online or at a license agent other than the LBL visitor centers. 
In regard to other areas, Fort Campbell hunting and fishing remains open at this time. Big South Fork is closed to the public. On both the North and South units of the Cherokee National Forest, all gates that are open will remain open although some campgrounds and restroom facilities may not be available.

The closures have come due to the lapse in appropriated funds, affecting all public lands managed by the Department of the Interior (National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management facilities, etc.). For more information, FAQs, and updates, please visit www.doi.gov/shutdown.

Persons interested in visiting federal lands and facilities are advised to monitor media outlets for further and updated information.