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Laws: Light as a Feather or Barbed Like a Hook?

Attention trout anglers! Help put unethical trout herders out of business.

The Conservationist received a letter last month that illustrates an extreme but commonly encountered attitude toward laws and regulations. It was written in response to a letter published on the January "Reflections" page:

"I can think of no better example of why the second American Revolution ... will occur ... than to have an absurd law that will fine or imprison a hardworking taxpaying citizen for taking home a bluejay feather," the writer fumed.

I had to agree it sounds absurd. I recall many walks when an iridescent feather on the ground caught my eye and joined the scavenged nature souvenirs in my pocket. Technically, I was violating both the state and federal laws which forbid the possession without a permit of the feathers or other parts of eagles, hawks, owls, songbirds and other protected species. But is the law absurd, as the letter writer insists?

Feather fashion swept the world around the turn of this century, and birds from egrets to songbirds were threatened. In 1898, the skins of 116,490 hummingbirds were shipped from the U.S. to hatmakers in London. Egret plumes brought $32 an ounce. When a hat factory in New York caught fire, the skins of 10,000 seagulls, 20,000 wings of other birds, and 10,000 bird heads burned up. One market hunter killed 141,000 birds in one year. It was about this time that the Carolina parakeet disappeared from Missouri.

Illegal trade in birds and bird parts - even endangered species - persists, but laws provide agents and other officials with tools for enforcement. I don't expect federal agents to arrest me for the contents of my jeans pocket, and I'm glad they have a way to arrest those who would shoot songbirds and eagles.

I've served on the Conservation Department's Regulations Committee for a mere 14 months. Most of its members have years of experience managing fish, forests and wildlife for sustainable use. Even so, we routinely struggle over what to regulate and what to leave alone.

A good example occurred last summer when we voted not to outlaw the practice of "herding" fish. It seems that this highly unsportsmanlike behavior has caught on at some trout parks. Anglers spot a trophy-sized fish, surround it and literally herd it into shallow water or a rocky crevice, then taunt it with their lures until it strikes. "This is the most unethical behavior I have ever witnessed," wrote one observer.

One could analyze what motivates anglers to behave this way forever, but the real question is how to stop it. Regulate? Or educate? And who bears the responsibility?

The Regulations Committee did not take action; we reasoned, perhaps wishfully, that the incidents of herding were isolated and would not persist. We have since learned of others, and will no doubt revisit the issue and perhaps add another regulation to an already cumbersome codebook.

Modern society presents few alternatives to making laws, and population pressure guarantees that issues will continue to proliferate. Some say lack of "personal responsibility" leads to dependence on laws, courts and governments to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps personal responsibility, coupled with social pressure, can eliminate the need for some laws. Peer disapproval is a powerful tool for changing human behavior: witness the change in society's attitude toward smoking. And social pressure can be tremendously effective in changing the unethical or illegal behavior of sportsmen and women.

It takes effort and guts to challenge the behavior you see around you, whether it's poaching or trout herding. But the alternative means relinquishing personal responsibility.

So let's try an experiment: when trout season opens next month, watch for the "herders." Let them know their actions aren't acceptable. Let's put them out of business without adding another law to the books.

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