Wildlife Commissioner caught up in bizarre case with crickets, turkeys

Published 2:50 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2024

JACKSON — A tip sent to The Daily Leader Monday claimed Leonard Bentz, a commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, was caught turkey hunting on a Holmes County property where crickets had been released a few days prior last Friday. Bentz confirmed he received a citation for baiting for hunting the property where crickets were released but said in a statement any reports he baited turkeys were not true.

Mississippi State Law states no person at any time shall take, catch or kill or attempt to take, catch or kill wild turkeys over any bait. Bentz said he would not fight the citation of baiting although he had no knowledge of crickets being released on the property. 

Bentz stated in an email that he and a guest of his were hunting a property where a friend assured him there was no bait on the property. A MDWFP law enforcement officer approached Bentz and his guest at 7 a.m. Friday morning stating there was a problem with the property in question. 

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In his statement, Bentz said he asked the officer to explain the problem because he inspected the roads and deer feeders. He claims the conservation officer confirmed there was no bait in the feeders or spread on the roads. 

Bentz stated the Law Enforcement officer had evidence showing the landowner and caretaker bought crickets and turned them loose on the property. The landowner was hunting on a property 15 minutes away and was called to the property. Bentz stated the landowner told the officer he did release crickets out on a couple places around the 500 acre property and were unaware putting crickets out was against the rules. 

In a follow up email, Bentz said in a statement he was contacted by the conservation officer Monday night and would be issued a citation for baiting. He said the officers told him they knew he was not aware the crickets were on the property but he is in violation because of the presence of bait on the property. 

“There is no reason to fight the citation, because I admittedly did briefly hunt the property and I will pay the citation as soon as it is turned into the justice court,” Bentz said in an emailed statement. “Goes to show our law enforcement officers do not give favors regardless of positions or titles. I would like to apologize for putting our conservation officers in this unfortunate situation and I appreciate what they do to protect our resources. Integrity is not just spoken or written words, it is measured by actions taken.”  

Ongoing investigation

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks offered no comment about the investigation. Instead, the department referred to departmental policy where law enforcement can not comment on a pending investigation and would not confirm if Bentz was the only public figure involved in the turkey hunting incident.

Efforts to reach the Holmes County Sheriff Willie March to see if his office was involved in the investigation have not been successful.

Under Mississippi law, a commissioner can not be convicted of a violation of fish or game laws and regulations within 5 years preceding appointment. A member of the MDWFP legal team told The Daily Leader Monday that Bentz had already been appointed by Governor Tate Reeves and the appointment written in the statute is defined as the governor’s appointment, not the final confirmation by the senate. 

Bentz has not been confirmed by the senate yet. The violation does not automatically disqualify him from office as it happened after he was appointed for his term. 

Wild turkey baiting

Commissioners heard a question about baiting of wild turkeys at a September 13, 2022 commission meeting. Chris Winter made a public comment asking about the legality of baiting and if MDWFP could clear up any confusion. 

​​“We have a commission which allows supplemental feeding all year round with all grains for wildlife. We also have a statute that says you can not bait turkeys,” Winter said. “There has been confusion that I’ve observed with the law enforcement and the public about what is and what isn’t baiting. It is legal to have feed out but you can’t bait. How do those things mesh? I ask the commission to clarify that and take some action to alleviate any confusion.” 

Chairman Bill Cossar thanked Winter for his comments and stated the MDWFP had only issued 57 citations for turkey baiting in 2021 and 53 in 2022 at the meeting. Cossar said at the meeting there was some confusion and they would take it under advisement.

Mississippi state law does not clearly define what is considered to be bait and what is considered to be baiting, only that hunting turkeys anywhere with baiting is not legal. 

The public is vital to helping MDWFP protect the natural resource and are asked to report any potential game violations to law enforcement online or by calling 1-800-BE-SMART.