Enforcing invasive species laws and regulations can be a challenge as lawmakers and officials seek a balance between effective education and adequate penalties.
The 2018 Montana Invasive Species Summit convened in Helena this week bringing together policy makers and enforcers to examine success and potential improvements in Montana’s effort to combat invasive animals and plants. Among the programs Friday was a panel featuring law enforcement and legal experts discussing the role officers and courts play in levying punishments for violating invasive species’ laws.
Regulations can be put in place but are often meaningless without enforcement to back them up, said Gary Adams, state plant health director with USDA.
A legal review by the governor-appointed Montana Invasive Species Council found five main regulatory issues: inconsistencies at inspection stations, staffing, inadequate penalties, funding and lack of collaboration.
Invasive species are not a Montana-specific issue, and Nicole Kimmel with Alberta Ministry of Environment and Parks detailed her province’s program. Similar to Montana, Alberta uses inspection stations to check boats for aquatic invasive species as well as educational campaigns.
Alberta originally made fines stringent – up to $100,000 for an individual and up to $500,000 for a corporation – but all those had to go to court.
“We found officers were reluctant to lay fines because of that requirement,” Kimmel said.
Alberta has since specified penalties of a few hundred dollars depending on the offense, but they have continued to struggle to get officers fully engaged in enforcement with only a small number of issued citations.
Funding largely dictates where Montana’s game wardens spend their time, FWP Enforcement Chief Dave Loewen said. With funding coming from state parks, invasive species, water safety and water education all during the summer, their time is stretched thin.
In 2017, 288 drivers with watercraft illegally bypassed check stations with 81, $85 citations issued. In 2018, the numbers were 224 drive-bys and 51 citations.
“There’s a gamut of options available to us,” Loewen said, noting that laws stretch from misdemeanors to felonies. “It’s a learning process each year.”
For how many fines game wardens write, they issue many more warnings. Evidence has shown that having game wardens present at check stations has upped compliance for motorists transporting watercraft to stop, he said.
“There’s a perception that heavy handed tickets and big fines are the way to get things done, but a lot of times education is a bigger bang for our buck,” he said.
Long-time Montana Judge Greg Mohr has worked extensively on setting recommendations for bonds across the state’s legal code, and noted the arduous process of combing through new laws from the legislature and case law.
Once penalties are set, Mohr noted that judges have discretion to account for mitigating or aggravating circumstances and set the bond accordingly to address unintentional versus intentional crimes.
While aquatic invasive species topped the list of topics, Montana’s noxious weed laws are also an important, although at times challenging, tool to enforce, said Cort Jensen, Montana Department of Agriculture attorney, joking that “no county attorney ever ran on their knowledge of civil procedure law.”
Noncompliance with noxious weed laws, which can result in a county involuntarily spraying weeds and billing landowners, is a cumbersome process when it comes to enforcing the law and respecting private property rights. It can also be challenging getting county attorneys to view it as a priority.
“You’re basically asking your county to be sued,” due to private property rights, and that often makes county attorneys reluctant to pursue noxious weeds the next time, Jensen said. Even with the difficulty, the law has been enforced several times and typically a landowner eventually chooses to come into compliance and address weed infestations.