Proposed Bill Would Limit Private Land Access For OK Game Wardens

Tuesday, March 15th 2016, 7:28 pm
By: Tess Maune

A Broken Arrow lawmaker said he wants to help protect private property by keeping game wardens at a distance. But the Oklahoma Game Warden Association said a change to the law could increase crime, causing the state's wildlife population to drop.

“It would just open up lots of doors to have people on private property, behind locked gates, knowing we can't come in there.” Game Warden Association president Tony Clark said. “We have lots of good hunters and they're gonna abide by the law no matter what. But we have some that will take advantage of this.”

Fenced in property, locked gates and no trespassing signs are common in Oklahoma - they're measures to keep the public out. But the way the law works, is a game warden can access any private land if he or she believes wildlife laws are being broken there.

“We do not walk on people's private property on a whim. We don't cut locks off of gates to enter private property. And if it requires a search warrant, we obtain it like any other law enforcement,” Clark said.

He said a single gunshot, especially out of season, can be suspicious enough to investigate. And, often times, it leads to poachers or other criminal activity.

“Game wardens have been enforcing the wildlife laws for 107 years and it's never been a problem,” Clark said. “Game wardens go to great lengths to build relationships with landowners.”

But, State Senator Nathan Dahm said his office has received some complaints from landowners.

“From people that were just sighting in their rifle or just doing target practicing, that a game warden entered their property, a half mile into their property, to come and investigate and treated them as if they were guilty until they were proven their innocence,” Dahm said.

Clark, who has been a state game warden for 21 years, said game wardens can usually tell the difference between something criminal and target practice or sighting in a weapon.

“We're not gonna be tromping around on your private property unless we have a really good reason to be there,” Clark said.

Dahm said a gunshot shouldn’t be reason enough. He said the current law violates 2nd and 4th amendment rights.

“I believe the main purpose for government is to secure rights,” Dahm said.

So, he's proposed a bill that would force game wardens to go off of more than just a gunshot and suspicion.

“This is saying the mere discharge of a firearm is not illegal, so it shouldn't be treated as such,” said Dahm. “If a neighbor had seen spotlights going on in the middle of the night, or if there were reports of poaching taking place in that area, those things combined would give reasonable suspicion for the game warden to be able to go investigate further.”

Ninety-five percent of land in Oklahoma is privately owned, but the wildlife on that land is not, it belongs to the state, and the game wardens association says Oklahoma’s wildlife would ultimately suffer from a change in the law.

“We've had several of the large land owners say that they'll just have hunting clubs come in and they will decimate the wildlife,” Clark said. “Wildlife will lose its protection on vast areas of land that is not inhabited by anybody.”

Clark said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation could also take a hit if the law changes.

“Why on earth would you buy a license if the game warden can't check you? The Wildlife Department, which is funded by licenses, will lose money,” Clark said.

Dahm disagrees, calling those hyperbolic statements.

“That’s just the nature of the beast here at the capitol. Everyone tries to go to the worst case scenario to say why this shouldn't pass,” Dahm said.

Senate Bill 1142 has to pass a house committee, the house floor and the senate floor before going to the governor’s desk.