Grand Rapids, Minn. It is still uncertain how a recent state
Supreme Court ruling that restricts Minnesota conservation
officers’ ability to check livewells or game bags without probable
cause will shake out in the field. The officers now need consent to
look into a livewell or game bag.
“For the most part, when our officers are asking for consent
they’re getting support,” says Craig Backer, DNR regional
enforcement supervisor in Grand Rapids.
However, the ruling occurred late enough in the summer that
fishing action was slowing down. And hunting seasons are only now
beginning. Backer says the ruling will change the way the officers
work hunting and fishing. Instead of making contacts with parties
to check their licenses and bags, they will now have to use
surveillance to detect violators.
“We’ll probably shift away from cursory checks and focus more on
high-priority cases or tips from the public,” Backer says.
For instance, enforcement during duck season is likely to focus
on areas with known concentrations of birds. Officers will watch
hunting parties to see if they kill an overlimit of ducks or
While officers must have consent to look into a game bag, they
may still inspect firearms. For their safety, officers may take
control of a weapon and unload it upon making contact with a
Conservation Officer Dennis Lang of Perham says one of the ways
the livewell ruling puts the resource at risk is with slot limits
and closed seasons for fish. Unless an officer sees an individual
keep an illegal fish, they cannot check for it.
“I think the natural resources are definitely at risk,” Lang
Conservation officers are dismayed with the ruling. Lang says
this is not because they have lost authority, but because the
officers believe it may allow poaching to occur.
In St. Paul, the DNR has formed a task force to address ways to
restore the officers’ ability to check livewells and game bags.
Enforcement Division Director Bill Bernhjelm says the agency is
working with the Attorney General’s office to interpret the court
“It’s not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be,” he says.
Forward progress is hindered somewhat by coming changes in state
government. After the election, the state will have a new governor
and new legislators. The Enforcement Division will present its
recommendations to the new administration.