CWE Continues its Legal Efforts to Protect Public Access to Public Lands and the Decision-Making Process

What is happening?

Are you planning to visit an Indiana State Park on November 12, 13, 26, and 27, 2018? Think again. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (“IDNR”) has once again improperly authorized various state parks to be closed to the public for rifle-deer-hunting. Therefore, this issue is time-sensitive and will exclude anyone from visiting Indiana’s state parks on these days unless they happen to be a pre-registered licensed deer hunter who was chosen in a “random-drawing”.

 

What's wrong with this?

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The IDNR’s stewardship role is to preserve and protect public properties such as state parks for Indiana citizens and future generations. These are the areas that we the public utilize and enjoy the most.

IDNR claims park closures are necessary because of a wildlife “emergency”. According to IDNR’s Emergency Rule published July 4, 2018, deer are causing measurable ecological harm. However, IDNR’s dubious “emergency” claims are belied by the fact that the agency opted to ignore said “emergency” for five months until deer hunting season began.

It is the agency's responsibility to prove an ecological necessity exists on 17 state park properties and then address these situations themselves. Even if the need for some form of wildlife “management” had been proven, IDNR cannot legally delegate this work to others. More specifically, IDNR cannot delegate this “management” duty to privately licensed, rifle-deer-hunters. Doing so explicitly violates the agency’s stewardship mandate and existing law.

Rifle-deer-hunting on state parks has been repeatedly enabled by IDNR's misuse and abuse of the temporary rule (or “Emergency Rule”) process. IDNR’s improper use of this process is a serious and ongoing problem. It denies the public’s right to due process as it circumvents the mandated rulemaking requirements of public notice and the public's right to participate in and comment on such proposed rules.

The two critical statutes IDNR relies on to enable rifle access to state parks and historic sites are nowhere to be found in the Department's Emergency Rule authorization. More importantly, neither statute grants legal authority to IDNR to deviate from the public's participation as required in the rulemaking process.

 

Is this something new?

No. The agency has been and continues to act improperly without any meaningful oversight. For the third[i] consecutive year, the agency has acted without legal authority by using the Emergency Rule process to allow rifle-deer-hunting on public lands.

The Emergency Rule process has been abused for mere political convenience and not because of any actual ecological condition at the parks. The end result is that public park patrons are excluded from their own public lands AND from the policy making process that resulted in the closure of parks to the public in the first place.

 

IDNR restricted public access to state parks during the 2017 firearms season  when a CWE member was denied access  to enter Potato Creek State Park to take photographs, because the park was being used for rifle-deer-hunting. The only photos the CWE member could take that day were of the “Park Closed” barriers placed at the park entrance.

IDNR restricted public access to state parks during the 2017 firearms season when a CWE member was denied access to enter Potato Creek State Park to take photographs, because the park was being used for rifle-deer-hunting. The only photos the CWE member could take that day were of the “Park Closed” barriers placed at the park entrance.

So what’s the result?

The public has no access to these cherished public lands when preferred access is given to privately licensed rifle-deer-hunters.

In November 2017, CWE filed a complaint in court challenging the legitimacy of the agency’s action, specifically, IDNR's improper use of the Emergency Rule process. CWE argued IDNR flagrantly disregarded the law and lacks the legal authority to enable rifle-deer-hunting on public lands via the Emergency Rule process.

 

How did we get here?

In 2016, the Indiana General Assembly adopted a law limiting rifle-deer-hunting to privately owned property during the firearms season. Because rifle use was expressly limited to private property, no rulemaking was required for IDNR to implement the law. Yet, based on all information[ii] available to-date, rifle-deer-hunting was permitted on public lands in 2016.

In 2017, the Indiana legislature again amended the rifle-deer-hunting statute, but the limitation of rifle hunting to private lands only remained in effect. The General Assembly’s failure to expand rifle-deer-hunting during the amendment process is a clear indication of legislative intent to limit use to private lands during the firearm season.

In spite of the clear and expressed limitations, in 2017, IDNR used the Emergency Rule process to improperly expand rifle-deer-hunting to public lands and into other hunting seasons. In so doing, the IDNR deliberately and intentionally defied the law.

In 2018, the legislature yet again acted to amend the law presumably to spare IDNR any further embarrassment or inconvenience. Cloaked as “retroactive” and “emergency” legislation, the rifle-deer-hunting statute was pushed through with remarkable efficiency to avoid any meaningful scrutiny of the substantive changes that served to expand rifle use to public lands during any season[iii] “established by the department”. Importantly, this legislative amendment also tasks the IDNR to “adopt rules under IC 4-22-2 to authorize the use of rifles on public property”.

 

Where we stand.

To-date, IDNR has failed to follow its own rule-making procedures to implement the rifle-deer-hunting statute and is yet again relying improperly on the Emergency Rule process to provide preferred access to state park lands to privately licensed deer hunters. Meanwhile the public, those who fund these treasured properties, has again been frozen out of the parks and the decision-making process entirely.

CWE will continue its efforts to end IDNR’s persistent abuse of the Emergency Rule process – deliberate agency acts that serve to nullify both the law and IDNR’s directive for public land stewardship.

[i] IDNR has improperly used the Emergency Rule process to grant privately licensed hunters and trappers access to Indiana State Parks, historic sites, and reservoir properties for more than ten years. This blog post, however, is focused specifically on the malfeasance surrounding the rifle-deer-hunting statute.

[ii] IDNR has yet to provide any discovery in this litigation or answer CWE’s initial or first amended complaint. One would reasonably believe if CWE’s allegations were untrue and the agency possessed the evidence to defend this case on the merits, IDNR would quickly and willingly offer the evidence to dispose of this case.

[iii] Deer hunting seasons span 4 ½ - 5 months annually.

AN “EMERGENCY” RULE FOR POLITICAL CONVENIENCE

On November 3rd, 2017, Indiana Department of Natural Resources (“IDNR”) issued an Emergency Rule (“ER”) to abolish current state law that serves to prohibit rifle use on public property (state and federal land). This agency action follows widely published media reports about a “mistake” in recently adopted legislation (H.B. 1415) authored by Rep. Sean Eberhard, R-Shelbyville that limits rifle use to private lands.

Source: Express photo by Pradeep Yadav

Source: Express photo by Pradeep Yadav

The ER has not yet been published in the Indiana Register, but according to IDNR’s Daily Digest Bulletin, states:

“Rifle cartridges that were allowed in previous years on public land for deer hunting are allowed on public land again this year during the deer firearms season, the reduction zone season (in zones where local ordinances allow the use of a firearm), special hunts on other public lands such as State Parks and National Wildlife Refuges, and special antlerless season.” (emphasis added)

However, as the Indiana Law Blog reported, the 2017 legislation was not actually to blame for the rifle use restriction. This amendment did not alter the language that limited the use of rifles to private property. Rather, the limitation (I.C. § 14-22-2-8(b)(1), “The use of a rifle is permitted only on privately owned land”) was added in 2016. Regardless,  

“Deer hunting with rifles was permitted on public property during the 2016 deer season despite the statutory prohibition simply because no one noticed the 2016 change.”

Eager to remedy the mishap in time for deer hunting season, IDNR has turned to the temporary “emergency” rule process as a “quick fix.” The ER evidently enables the agency to thumb its nose at the legislature, or more importantly, the will of the people. This temporary rule making process apparently allows IDNR to subvert the General Assembly with a simple stroke of the pen.

One must reasonably question the validity of this legal maneuver and how a purely political issue could possibly qualify as an emergency situation.

But you won...why are you appealing?

In 2011, an Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources’ (IDNR) employee’s body-crushing (conibear) fur trap killed Melodie Liddle’s beloved dog, Copper at Versailles State Park. The deadly device, situated 15’ feet from a paved roadway, was just one of dozens of traps scattered throughout Versailles and potentially hundreds of traps hidden within Indiana State Parks by commercial fur trappers. IDNR deliberately concealed all commercial fur trapping activity from the public.

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IDNR personnel repeatedly dodged Melodie’s attempts to discuss the agency’s trapping policy in the aftermath of Copper’s tragic death. When a call from the agency finally did arrive, it did not come from state park personnel or law enforcement, but rather IDNR’s Director of Communications who tape recorded the conversation without Melodie’s knowledge. The Communications Director offered no assurance that steps would be implemented to prevent future trapping deaths. In fact, three weeks after Melodie buried her dog, IDNR issued yet another “Emergency Rule” to enable more commercial fur trapping on Park properties.

Deadly devices have no legitimate purpose on public park land

Conibear traps are inherently dangerous and are used with the sole intent to kill. They do so violently and indiscriminately.

Shattered by her loss and frustrated by IDNR’s indifference, Melodie sought legal remedy for the agency’s reckless disregard of public safety.  

Melodie’s Tort Claim Prevails against IDNR

In June 2017, Marion County Superior Court decided Melodie’s hard fought case in her favor, finding IDNR negligent for failing to warn state park patrons that their employee was maintaining deadly wildlife traps. While a victory acknowledging IDNR’s negligence is a critical step towards justice for Copper and Melodie Liddle, the consequences of this ruling are meager and fail to prohibit future commercial fur trapping activities on state park properties or promote transparency within an agency that customarily operates in the dark.

To address the insufficiency of the trial court’s remedy, the Center for Wildlife Ethics (CWE) filed an appeal with the Indiana Appellate Court on Melodie’s behalf.

quora

quora

IDNR’s Indecency

Melodie’s devastating loss, was further compounded by the agency’s duplicity and relentless victim blaming.

Immediately following Copper’s death, IDNR worked to disguise commercial fur trapping as a public service needed for managing “nuisance” wildlife in the parks. The agency, unable to provide any evidence of a “nuisance” animal problem in Indiana State Parks, even went so far as to tout an alleged “nuisance wildlife program”. IDNR’s Director of Communications admitted, when confronted by CWE, there was no such program.

IDNR worked to deflect the blame for Copper’s death onto Melodie. Baseless accusations were raised in the media about whether her dogs were properly leashed, despite the evidence that proved they were. IDNR also raised issues regarding the trap’s location, suggesting that it was planted securely in an inaccessible location and off-limits to the public, which is untrue.

IDNR later argued in court that Melodie was contributorily negligent for Copper’s death. According to IDNR, park patrons who pay to visit state parks cannot venture down a 15-foot trail (created by the trapper himself) to a shallow creek so dogs can get a quick drink of water.

The trial court rightfully rejected this ridiculous notion. The court also agreed with Melodie that no reasonable person could have anticipated the reckless disregard of public safety demonstrated by IDNR. Nor would anyone reasonably expect to encounter an illegal, deadly device on state park land hidden by the Park’s so-called security officer.

The Legal Remedy is inadequate

Melodie suffered real, tangible damage. The law (and society) recognizes her tragedy as a tort, yet the courts offer very little in the form of any real remedy.

Tort law is meant to make an injured party whole, yet the ruling in this case contradicts this reasonable and essential objective. According to an earlier trial court ruling, Melodie is entitled to nothing more than “fair market value” or essentially, a replacement dog.

In Melodie’s case, “fair market” valuation is fundamentally flawed. There is no “market value” for a senior, mixed-breed dog who was rescued from a neglectful situation and beloved by Melodie for nearly 10 years. Copper was not a commercial animal with any inherent market value. She was never within the stream of commerce, nor could she ever be.

eaglecountryonline.com

eaglecountryonline.com

Copper and Melodie treasured a bond built on loyalty, and emotional and physical comfort. Copper’s value stems from this mutual affection and devotion. A “replacement” is inadequate when the loss suffered is another living being whose value is derived solely from a sentimental bond and shared life experiences.

“Fair market value” analysis is complicated by internal contradictions. External transactions (food, housing, veterinary care, etc.) are a natural consequence of the human-animal bond and are routinely acknowledged by the law, yet the intrinsic value of special, cherished relationships is often deemed nominal at best.

Equally notable, there’s nothing “fair” about a damage award that fails to acknowledge the horror Melodie experienced while wrestling frantically to free her dog from IDNR’s deadly wildlife trap.

Melodie is uniquely situated to legally challenge IDNR

Legal standing (the right to sue) is often an unsurmountable hurdle for individuals seeking a legal remedy to harmful and/or illegal agency actions. Lacking an injury-in-fact, conscientious citizens are typically unable to avail themselves of judicial intervention. The average citizen is muted.

Clearly, Melodie has suffered an injury – one proximately caused by IDNR’s shocking negligence. Her loss, or the “nexus” to the agency’s actions, uniquely qualifies Melodie to challenge IDNR’s statutory authority to permit commercial fur trappers to maintain deadly traps on Indiana State Park properties, and personally profit while doing so.

Given the strict standing requirements imposed by courts, Melodie may be the only person who could legally challenge IDNR on its reckless conduct and policies.

An appeal is critical to achieving meaningful change

While the trial court’s recent decision rightfully held that IDNR’s actions were negligent, this ruling simply creates an illusion of justice. A 2016 court order foreclosed Melodie’s opportunity to hold IDNR accountable in any meaningful sense.

The court never ruled on the legitimacy of IDNR’s commercial fur trapping activities. Although IDNR stopped using the “Emergency Rule” after 2013,  there is no evidence that commercial fur trapping and the sale of pelts is not on-going. More importantly, nothing in the trial court’s Order prevents IDNR from allowing this to happen again.  

Granted, a sentimental damage award and a legal prohibition to IDNR’s reckless behavior can never make Melodie “whole” given the horror she and Copper endured. But, a strong message can be sent that this level of negligence is indefensible and will not be tolerated. Thus the purpose of Melodie’s appeal.

CWE SCORES MAJOR VICTORY: Court Rules IDNR Negligent for Failing to Warn State Park Patrons of Deadly Wildlife Traps

You’ve been following Center for Wildlife Ethics’s updates on important litigation in Indiana, Liddle v. Clark, et al., a case involving outrageous recklessness by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (“IDNR”) in public parks.

This week, we are thrilled to share our biggest announcement yet.

After years of tireless work on behalf of plaintiff Melodie Liddle, CWE obtained a big win for companion animals, their guardians, and wildlife in Indiana. The Marion Superior Court #2 ruled that the State of Indiana was negligent for failing to warn park patrons that their employee was maintaining hidden, deadly animal traps throughout state park property.

The circumstances of this case are quite disturbing. This litigation started after Ms. Liddle’s beloved dog, Copper was killed in a steel trap about 15 feet from a paved roadway at Versailles State Park (“Park”). The deadly trap was hidden inside a wooden box built into an embankment near Laughery Creek’s edge.

Following Copper’s gruesome death, Ms. Liddle discovered that dozens of these deadly devices had been hidden throughout the Park by an IDNR employee. The employee was trapping raccoons at Versailles and selling the animal pelts for 8 years with IDNR’s knowledge, but without legal authorization.

Versailles State Park, Indiana

Versailles State Park, Indiana

Ms. Liddle persisted when the IDNR repeatedly leveled absurd defenses, asserting, for example, that she somehow was to blame for Copper’s death. Fortunately, the Court rejected the state’s claim that Ms. Liddle was contributorily negligent by walking a few feet down a path to allow her dogs a drink of water.

CWE’s efforts to obtain justice for Copper and Ms. Liddle are ongoing. We are already hard at work on an appeal of the Court’s earlier rulings in this case. But we wanted to pause briefly to share what is truly a meaningful victory for everyone: animals and the unsuspecting public who were (or could be) put at  grave risk by IDNR’s illegitimate practices.

Thank you for making it possible with your unwavering support. We will continue to provide updates on our progress on this important litigation and further detail the issues addressed in Ms. Liddle’s appeal.

APPEAL DENIED: IDNR CONTENDS NO DUTY TO PARK PATRONS AFTER HIDING LETHAL TRAPS IN PUBLIC PARK

          Last week, the Court of Appeals of Indiana denied the interlocutory appeal for Melodie Liddle (Liddle v. Clark, et al.) – the unfortunate park patron who struggled frantically to save her leashed dog Copper from a deadly trap at Versailles State Park in Indiana, and ultimately witnessed her beloved companion die in her arms. As has been the case with other motions filed by Ms. Liddle, her interlocutory appeal was summarily denied without explanation or justification.

          The facts in this case are undisputed and highlight the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ (IDNR) indifference and reckless disregard for public safety. IDNR created a hazardous condition at Versailles by hiding lethal wildlife traps just feet away from the roadway and other areas frequented by the public and their pets. The agency then deliberately failed to warn park patrons of either the traps’ presence or location. Serious harm was not only foreseeable, but inevitable.

          Neither law nor fact support the State’s claims that the employees who created this hazard are immune from liability simply because they are on IDNR’s payroll or that IDNR has no duty to protect park patrons from foreseeable harm inflicted by dangerous lethal traps they themselves concealed throughout the park.

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          In the five years since Copper’s violent death, IDNR has made no settlement attempt and offered no apology. Those who enabled this perilous condition have shown no signs of remorse or decency toward Ms. Liddle or her family. Rather, the State has worked to make this case as convoluted, expensive and protracted as possible.

          Ms. Liddle’s attorneys at the Center for Wildlife Ethics (CWE), have worked to vindicate her rights and vow to continue to battle this obstruction of justice. According to CWE attorney and Director Laura Nirenberg, “If we take the government’s flimsy defense to its troubling conclusion, IDNR could have hidden traps anywhere throughout the park where people were allowed (bathrooms, swimming pool, camp grounds, etc.) and any resulting injuries, regardless of the severity, would leave the victims without any legal recourse. People could literally lose their hand, or worse yet, a child, and the government would have no liability.”

          Adding insult to injury, the Indiana taxpayers – the same foreseeable victims of this secret killing program – are bearing the financial cost of this extensive litigation for both IDNR and the trapper.

          CWE, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, is committed to providing legal advocacy for Ms. Liddle until justice prevails. We desperately need your help.  All contributions, no matter the amount, are tax-deductible and could help achieve justice for Copper and prevent future tragedies like the one Ms. Liddle has suffered through. Your support is greatly appreciated. 

When a fake "emergency" becomes a real-life hazard

            Between 2004 and 2013, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) distorted the regulatory process for the purpose of converting public lands into private treasure troves for fur-trappers. Through the use of a temporary procedure—a so-called “emergency” rule—well-connected trappers were authorized to conceal dangerous lethal devices throughout state parks without so much as a cautionary warning to members of the public who visit these serene, cherished lands.

            As the name implies, an Emergency Rule (ER) is a regulatory action used in unusually hazardous situations that warrant immediate attention. According to Indiana law, the need for regulatory action is substantiated by a thorough investigation. When a long-term need is established, the ER process runs concurrently with the agency’s promulgation of a permanent rule.

            An agency relies on this parallel ER process when immediate action is necessary to put the pending permanent rule into operation during the interim. The ER is designed to be used infrequently and to serve as a temporary gap measure where public notice and comment is not discarded, only temporarily delayed due to the extraordinary circumstances.

            At least, that is how it is supposed to work.

            In 2004, IDNR, capitalizing on the disinterest of media and watchdog groups, enacted an ER to permit the trapping of beaver in Pokagon and Shakamak State Parks. By 2005, the ER targeted raccoons in 23 state parks. Additional species and properties, including state reservoir properties, were added in subsequent years.

            Lacking any semblance of meaningful agency oversight, the annual reissuance of this temporary regulatory scheme deliberately thwarted all public notice and input requirements. To date, IDNR as never promulgated a permanent rule to address this alleged “emergency.” No evidence was provided by the agency either through discovery in litigation that is currently pending or public access to records requests that would suggest IDNR (or anyone else) ever conducted a thorough investigation to support the need for an ER in any state park or reservoir property.

            IDNR’s deliberate abuse of the ER process begs the question: how can the mere presence of native wildlife on vast undeveloped swaths of wooded parkland be construed as an unusual hazard? And, if the alleged nuisance wildlife problems were severe enough to constitute an emergency, these concerns would be well-documented, right?

            According to IDNR’s communication director, the raccoon “emergency” was supported by a 1988 raccoon roundworm study, the 1987 Indiana Prairie Farmer Report, the 1993 AVMA Panel on Euthanasia Report, and other irrelevant documents that contained the word “raccoon”. While this conglomeration of random, outdated materials could conceivably be of interest from an historical wildlife zoonotic disease perspective, it is of no value for demonstrating the existence of an immediate hazard on any Indiana public lands between 2004 and 2013.

            When pressed, the agency claimed that a handful of camper complaints about nuisance raccoons generated during the summer months at various state parks triggered the need for the ERs. How these random complaints, spread over the course of several years, could conceivably be used to justify the need for trapping and killing raccoons in other parks hundreds of miles away is anyone’s guess.

            Notably, the ERs enacted to address this alleged emergency limited all trapping activities to the regulated trapping season and mandated that any trappers targeting nuisance situations outside of the legal trapping season must “possess a nuisance wild animal control permit”.

            If the ERs were truly meant to address nuisance wildlife complaints, there would be no need for trappers to obtain another permit. And, if camper complaints legitimately rose to the level of an emergency, why would trappers be required to wait until winter – 6+ months later – to target the offending animal(s)? 

            Contrary to IDNR’s oft-repeated rhetoric, this regulatory scheme was deliberately designed to financially benefit fur trappers. The ERs’ explicit limitations ensured that animals would only be killed during the winter months when animal pelts are plush and marketable. The ERs explicit language actually served to discourage trappers from responding to camper complaints or legitimate nuisance situations during the peak camping season.

            Blaming “nuisance” wildlife was an advertent public relations’ tactic that allowed the agency to present the killing of wildlife on public lands as a necessary evil. Painting these animals as a human health threat served to disguise the fact that the annual trapping and killing of wildlife was being conducted for recreation and profit.

            An internal IDNR memorandum clearly supports this position. The memo cautioned property managers about setting trapping conditions in each park and stressed the importance of confidentiality: “this matter should not “become a public media issue…for obvious reasons.” IDNR, so committed to secrecy, refused to inform the public about these hidden lethal devices and then excused this blatant recklessness by claiming that publicizing the program may result in traps being stolen.

            IDNR fabricated an emergency situation to financially reward its friends in the fur trapping industry. The overwhelming irony in this situation is that by doing so, the agency, as public land custodians, deliberately created an unusual hazard that foreseeably jeopardized the same constituency it is entrusted and obligated to protect. And then it exhibited this reckless disregard for both public safety and sound public policy for more than 9 years.