SPICER (AP) -- Conservation officer Mike O'Brien eases his boat onto Green Lake, frowning as he considers how a recent court ruling will affect his efforts to guard the state's natural resources.
"This isn't about us," he says. "This is about our grandkids and their grandkids. What are they going to have left?"
The state Court of Appeals ruled last month that boats should be treated with the same Fourth Amendment privacy protection as cars and therefore can't be searched without consent or probable cause. Essentially, that means anglers (and presumably hunters) don't have to allow conservation officers to arbitrarily check their boats and catch.
Conservation officers say the decision leaves them with little leverage over the worst violators.
In O'Brien's 18 years on the job, no angler has refused to let him see his livewell; no hunter has refused him a peek at what's in the camouflage bags.
"I've never been turned down," he says. "But I will be."
Already, O'Brien says, he's seen "some evasiveness, some cockiness" from anglers. "They're playing with us a little bit."
Minnesota has 136 officers to protect natural resources over 79,610 square miles. O'Brien and others think the court ruling will make enforcement of the state's fish and game laws much more difficult.
It might take sitting on one lake all day with a pair of binoculars, watching one or two boats to see if someone took too many fish or shot too many birds. Even more difficult would be trying to determine from a distance if a fish was within the slot limit.
Many people have obeyed the laws only for fear of getting caught, said Brad Schultz, an officer from Chisago.
Lt. Tim Knellwolf, the district supervisor in O'Brien's area, compared the ruling to allowing a shopper to go into Wal-Mart, fill a cart with television sets, cover it with a blanket and tell the clerk he or she couldn't look underneath it.
If enough people break the rules, the DNR may have to reduce limits or shorten seasons to make sure the resources aren't depleted, Knellwolf said.
Conservation officers may still ask to see fishing licenses and may cite anyone fishing without one.
They also may still ask to inspect boats for fish and game, but if the boat owner refuses, they have no further authority.
The court decision follows a ruling this year that conservation officers cannot enter ice-fishing houses without the owner's permission or probable cause. That decision was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court; a ruling is expected any day.
Officials haven't decided yet whether to appeal the boat inspection case. The other option is to go to the Legislature.
Some anglers, such as Kevin Anderson of McGregor, think the latest court decision is a fair one -- that conservation officers should be required to have "proof" of a violation to look through someone's boat. Anderson, who manages Willey's Sport Shop, remembers a game warden in the area who stopped too many people too often.
"He overused his powers," Anderson said.
But other people said they hoped to see the ruling overturned.
"Lord, if you're going to enforce the laws, you have to have the tools to do it," said Don Pack, 64, a science teacher from Ponca, Neb., who said he's been coming to Minnesota to fish since 1968.
"The guys who are hiding fish in their livewells are basically stealing the state blind," said Rian Lippert, a pharmacy manager from Cedar Falls, Iowa. "Same with poaching."
Even Jim Gordon, a pizza shop owner from Spicer who says he doesn't like government intrusion, said he hoped for a reversal. "There's no question it ties the hands of conservation officers," he said.
He gets no argument from O'Brien.
"Most sports men and women are good," he said. "Those are not the people who we're worried about."
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