You could have put every Natural Resources Police field officer in the state into the Annapolis hearing room Saturday - two times over - and still had room for the coffee urn, doughnut tray and a small dance band.

That was the sobering reality hanging over the Conservation Law Enforcement Summit, which attracted recreational and commercial fishermen, hunters, fish and game cops and state lawmakers - all looking for a way to boost the police agency during the next session of the General Assembly.

"The chances of getting caught are low. The chances of getting penalized, with some exceptions, are low," said Attorney General Doug Gansler, summing up the battle against poachers in an era of diminished resources. "Why not beg, borrow or steal? We need to get the resources [to NRP] to catch them and penalize them."

Statistics cited Saturday paint a dire picture. NRP staffing is half what it was a little more than a decade ago. There are 154 officers in the field to patrol thousands of miles of shoreline, freshwater lakes and the Chesapeake Bay and nearly 10,000 square miles of public dirt. There aren't enough cops to cover three shifts daily and not much overtime money. Eighty-four officers and supervisors face mandatory retirement the next five years.

Tipping the scales further - NRP's responsibilities are growing.

Homeland security patrols have been added around the bay's bridges and power plants. The National Harbor development on the Potomac River in Prince George's County requires its own patrol boat and officers. The state, wisely, is spending millions to buy up shoreline, wetlands and forests so that future generations will have a great outdoors to enjoy.

But as Delegate Dick Sossi, an Eastern Shore Republican and a member of the House Environmental Matters Committee, noted: "That land needs to be managed. If we're going to buy the land, we have to have the people to manage it."

Just the opposite has been happening. The fiscal crisis that has reached into homes and gripped government at all levels has forced cuts in the Department of Natural Resources' budget and put a major hurt on the folks who manage and protect public land and waters. NRP's budget has been cut $2 million over the past three years.

"We're all in a tough place here," said Trent Zivkovich, speaking for Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "But we have to get back to protecting the resources."

(As an aside, it should be noted that the Wildlife and Heritage Service, which supplies the science that drives management and protection, also is taking major budget hits. More on that in the coming weeks.)

The reality, of course, is that the financial cupboard is bare. Any bill filed next session to bolster NRP can't have the kiss-of-death fiscal note.

That means no money to hire cops, no money to replace the 60 percent of the patrol fleet that's more than 10 years old, no money to restore NRP's helicopter unit.

Kind of takes the zip out of it, eh?

But that doesn't mean groups such as the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Foundation won't look for existing revenue sources to divert and other ways to help officers do their jobs.

Groups will be working on a bill to spell out the issues and potential solutions to set the stage for more sweeping assistance when the fiscal crisis ends, said foundation spokesman Bill Miles.

In addition, Gansler, top judicial administrators and the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office are setting up a pilot program so that all natural resources cases will be clustered on a single day each month and judges will be trained on the nuances of those laws.

"More education of the judges of the problems you face will result in better outcomes and sentences in these cases," said John McKenna, administrative judge for the Anne Arundel District Court. "D-Day is the third Friday in January. We'll use the year to work the kinks out of the system and hopefully be able to show other counties how to do it."

As the summit ended, Miles sounded a note of optimism: "We've heard a call to action. I think you'll see these people respond."

Deer data

Maryland deer hunters killed 19,054 white-tailed deer during the opening two days of gun season last weekend, a 20 percent increase over last season. The breakdown was 8,072 antlered deer and 10,982 antlerless deer.

Sunday hunters in 19 counties took 4,877 deer on private land. Hunters also took 439 sika deer.

The two-week deer firearms season ends Saturday evening.

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