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Poaching already is a Class A misdemeanor under Missouri law.

"That's a maximum (fine) of up to $2,000 and/or one year in jail," Conservation Department Deputy Director Aaron Jeffries told the Senate's Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee on Monday.

Mike Bernskoetter

But state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, wants judges to have the authority to impose a fine — payable to the state to benefit the public schools — for people convicted of poaching a white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, wild turkey or paddlefish.

And a lobbyist for the St. Louis Zoo on Monday asked the committee to add the hellbender salamander to the list of poached animals where a fine could be imposed.

The committee, which Bernskoetter chairs, also heard testimony Monday on a bill that would make the salamander the state's official endangered species.

The committee took no action on either proposal.

Bernskoetter told the committee poaching already is a problem in the state, with 547 wild turkeys, 58 paddlefish and 4,731 deer taken in 2017 and 2018.

Jeffries told the committee: "Our fines are considerably less than in other states.

"You poach a deer in Iowa, and you may receive a fine up to $20,000.

"In states like South Dakota, they also take your property or equipment that was involved in that poaching activity."

Missouri doesn't want to be that severe, he testified.

"What we're wanting to do is show that Missourians care for their wildlife," he said, "and that if you're going to do something wrong, we want to at least have the judge (and) prosecutor to have the ability to impose the appropriate fine."

Few people go to jail, Jeffries testified, although recently in Lawrence County, "an individual was found guilty of probably poaching — actually, our agents really don't know how many — at least 200-300 deer over a year's time. Part of his sentence (of) a year in jail — he's having to watch 'Bambi' once-a-month."

Jeffries said paddlefish were included in the proposed law because the department stocks the state's streams with the fish.

"Basically, with the collapse of the caviar market and sturgeon," he said, "the fish that (people) are going to poach is paddlefish, so we've had several undercover operations over in Warsaw, where we've arrested hundreds of people for illegally taking over-limits of paddlefish and selling the eggs."

Bernskoetter's bill proposes ranges of fines for each animal: $375-$750 for each wild turkey poached; $500-$1,000 for each paddlefish; $1,000-$2,000 for each deer; and $2,500-$5,000 for each black bear or elk. Three officials from the Conservation Federation of Missouri also supported the proposal.

In addition to adding the hellbender salamander to Bernskoetter's poaching bill, the St. Louis Zoo backed Sen. Karla May's bill to make the lizard the state's official endangered animal.

"I think the zoo has done a fabulous job of trying to stabilize the ecosystem by repopulating our rivers with the species," May, D-St. Louis, said.

Westminister College sophomore Cameron Gehlert, of Linn, told the committee the salamander "is an indicator species. Unlike humans, which can take over 40 years to recognize that a chemical or maybe some kind of mineral is bad for our health, hellbenders can realize it's bad for health (quickly), and that shows the overall stream health."

Gehlert said there are several reasons for the hellbender salamander's population decline, including poaching because of a belief their livers have health benefits or function as an aphrodisiac.

Missouri, he said, is the only state where both sub-species of hellbender salamander — the Eastern and the Ozark — are found.

Patty Bueckendorf, of Shrewsbury, has been a "hellbender keeper" at the St. Louis Zoo for the last three years.

She told the committee that scientists at the zoo are trying to determine all the reasons for the animal's population decline — in some places, as much as 90 percent in recent years — especially in some of southern Missouri's popular rivers like the Current, Meramac, Big Piney, Niangua and Gasconade.

"Hellbenders actually have been around for about 160 million years," she reported, "so the fact they are facing such dramatic population declines now is a big problem."

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