Cockaded woodpeckers and American bald eagles are not indigenous to the marble chambers of the Maryland State House in Annapolis. But last week those rare birds provoked a lively debate, complete with eagle sound effects, in the land of three-piece suits.
"You should see them teaching those young eagles how to catch fish," said State Sen. Frederick C. Malkus, who owns a Dorchester County farm where a pair of bald eagles, Herman and Hilda, nest rent free. "Oh, my Lord, how they scream, 'Eeee Eeee.' "
The high-pitched imitation came during debate on a bill that would allow Maryland taxpayers to authorize on their tax forms a donation to an endangered species conservation fund. The controversy prompted by the bill was surprising, but the fact that the state's elected representatives were debating animal issues was not.
When it is lawmaking time in Maryland, Virginia or Pennsylvania, birds and other beasts may not always get top billing, but they are seldom forgotten. In Annapolis, where the current legislative session ends in two weeks, more than two dozen bills to regulate hunting, fishing and trapping have been introduced.
While most outdoor enthusiasts spent the cold months cleaning tackle boxes or oiling guns, legislators in Maryland were busy proposing bills dealing with license fees, net sizes and Sunday hunting with falcons. Other bills redefined the way we are allowed to relate to snapping turtles, foxes, raccoons and game wardens.
In Virginia, the General Assembly this year legislated the end of an era in coon hunting. For as long as men and dogs have been chasing raccoons into trees, the hunters of Essex County have been allowed to take as many coons as skill and supply allowed. Essex, a farm county along the Rappahannock River, was the last county in the state that had a year-round coon-hunting season and no bag limit. But at the request of the Essex Board of Supervisors, that situation will soon change.
"The citizens here wanted things controlled," said James Moore, county administrator for Essex, which has a population of 8,864 and one incorporated town. "We just drew too many people here." And all of them carried guns.
Virginia legislators this year considered bills to regulate water skiing, waterfowl blinds and the gigging of suckers. Game wardens were given authority to carry concealed weapons by one bill, and granted the same police powers as county sheriffs and city police by another.
The game warden changes were prompted by a number of recent woundings of game wardens. Last fall, five men were charged with the attempted murder of a game warden who was investigating illegal deer hunting near New Castle, Va.
"That was probably one of the landmark bills passed this year," said Jack Randolph of the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. Randolph, who has been a warden for 14 years, says that even though Virginia game wardens will be able to arrest bank robbers or issue speeding tickets, he doesn't think they will exercise those powers. "Wardens have more than they can say grace over now," he said.
Pennsylvania hunters are now allowed to sell deer antlers, squirrel tails, pheasant and grouse wings and other inedible parts of game animals because of recently passed legislation designed to eliminate the flourishing black market in such items.
Many states have wildlife commissions made up of appointed sport enthusiasts and are supposed to keep an eye on relevant legislation. But the commissions often depend on public input that is slow coming.
"The normal response to public meetings is not very good," said Paul Helm, a volunteer member of a Maryland fish and wildlife commission. "We get the complaints after something is passed."
Getting a bill introduced in a state legislature is sometimes as easy as bending the ear of a local legislator. Maryland Sen. Joe Williams of Wicomico, at the request of a local Baptist minister, this year drafted a bill that would have reserved opening day in each hunting and fishing season for county residents. For example, only Garrett County residents would be allowed to hunt deer in Garrett County on the first day of the season.
"I'm not a hunter," said Long. "It sounded like a good bill to me at the time."
To Bernard Halla, Maryland's director of wildlife administration, it sounded like a bill that would cost the state enormous opening-day revenues and create a storm of controversy that would eclipse the debate over steel and lead shot that occurred three years ago. Halla persuaded Long to withdraw the bill.
"I began to get a lot of flak," Long said. "When I saw the conflict it was creating, I went to the people who asked me to introduce it and said, 'You guys have got me in a hell of a spot.' "
One bill that did get past the House and Senate in Maryland was the income tax checkoff fund for endangered species. But supporters of that bill had to withstand the slings and arrows of opponents such as Sen. John Cade of Anne Arundel County, who said the state's Department of Natural Resources wouldn't need any extra money for endangered species if it did a good job. When that argument failed, Cade tried unsuccessfully to water down the bill with an amendment giving the state ornithological society its own income tax checkoff fund.
"This bill is for the birds," Cade said. "So they certainly ought to benefit from it."