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DNR strong-arms small pet shops in ‘Operation Crusty Crab’

UPDATED at 4:08 p.m. to include Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney’s comments. 

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Sharon Woolhether says she’s never had a parking ticket before two plain-clothed Department of Natural Resources agents walked into her small tropical fish store and berated her for carrying a prohibited species of crayfish.

“It was absolutely insane. They were just rude and nasty,” said the 70-year-old owner of Natural World Aquariums on Fond du Lac’s Main Street. “I’ve never broken any law in any way and they were horrible to me. It was like I was a mass murderer or something.”

Woolhether, a local business owner with a big heart known for taking in unwanted pets, was one of several targets of a two-year, statewide investigation the DNR ridiculously dubbed “Operation Crusty Crab.” The agency, with the help of local prosecutors, is looking to hit retailers and wholesalers with a combined $42,000 in fines.

The Fond du Lac County District Attorney’s office, led by Republican Wisconsin attorney general candidate Eric Toney, is prosecuting Woolhether on four citations totaling potentially thousands of dollars. Her trial is set for July, two years after the DNR agents busted her for possessing tiny crawdads. Curiously, Woolhether is being charged with carrying a species that she said the DNR wardens had to Google to identify while they were in the store, working an investigation with an incorrect name.

“It’s not even a crab they were looking for. It’s a crayfish,” she said.

‘Illegal species’ 

Operation Crusty Crab began in 2019 when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources received a citizen complaint of red swamp crayfish for sale at a Milwaukee pet store. DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye says Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 40 — the invasive species rule makes it illegal to possess, transport, transfer or introduce certain invasive species in Wisconsin without a permit. Red swamp crayfish have shown to be native habitats, according to the agency.

Hoye said the complaint led to the discovery of a primary wholesale distributor from Illinois that delivered approximately 850 prohibited invasive crayfish to various pet stores throughout Wisconsin over a roughly two-year period. The aquatic and companion animal wholesaler is identified as Apet Inc. of suburban Chicago, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin. The same document cites 23 retailers across Wisconsin, including stores in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and as far north as Rice Lake.

The investigation also identified several wholesale distributors from Illinois and  Minnesota “selling these illegal, invasive crayfish,” Hoye said.

“As a result, three wholesale distributors and eight retail stores/owners/operators were found to have hundreds of violations,” the DNR official said.

According to the criminal complaint, Woolhether was found to have “purchased and possessed for resale approximately 153 prohibited non-native crayfish from Apet Inc., between March 2017 and February 2019.”

The citations and charges are as follows:

  • The primary defendant was charged with 11 misdemeanor crimes which was plea bargained down to 125 civil citations for approximately $36,875 in civil penalties.
  • Woolhether is facing four citations – not criminal charges. The case is still in the court system.
  • The other 9 defendants were issued 23 civil citations in total. Plea negotiations reduced those to 22 convictions, with penalties totaling approximately $5,166.00.

Better things to do? 

Bonnie Ihnen and her family have owned Pet Pals, a pet store in downtown Delavan, for more than 32 years. The little store was hit with $250 in fines for having what she described as 15 mini Mexican crayfish in a tank.

Ihnen said she was unaware that the crayfish were illegal to possess. They often are a chance possession.

“A lot of times we get these crawdads in with these feeder goldfish so we just leave them in the tank,” she said. “They eat up whatever dies and keep the tank clean.

“The next thing you know the DNR are walking in.”

The agents arrived in plain clothes. They looked around the store, Ihnen said, and when they were done snooping they read her the riot act and talked about the fines the store could expect.

While it is the responsibility of retailers to know the invasive species list, pet store operators who spoke to Empower Wisconsin said the list is long and the rules are often changing.

“You wouldn’t believe the list. We got probably a five-page invasive species list, printed on both sides, of stuff we can’t sell —  plants, fish, and whatever else,”  Ihnen said.

More so, critics of the DNR investigation ask: Doesn’t the government agency have anything better to do?

Woolhether’s attorney, Kirk Everson, said the Fond du Lac retailer has been a long-time, responsible pet store owner. He said she has taken classes to help her identify potentially invasive species, and has contacted the DNR with questions. More so, Woolhether prides herself on taking in animals in return to re-home them versus having the owners release them to the wild. Not the least of which is Dozer, a 95-pound, people-loving tortoise who has become a kind of mascot for downtown Fond du Lac.

Woolhether said when the DNR agents busted her, they instructed her to put a small turtle in the store’s freezer to kill it. She wouldn’t comply.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I don’t kill things.’”

“I’ve done everything as far as trying to comply with the rules and regulations, but they keep changing them,” Woolhether said. “It’s hard to play the game when they keep changing the rules.”

But the DNR says it has warned fish store operators in the past.

“Many defendants had previously been educated about invasive species laws or had been specifically contacted and warned about the invasive species violations they were committing,” Hoye said.

Court records note that DNR Organisms in Trade staff had previously visited Natural World Aquariums  and “provided them with invasive species information and warned them for being in possession” of invasive species or aquatic plants. But that was seven years before.

‘Singled out’ 

The bigger concern may be what some say is the disparity in the investigations and prosecutions.

Operation Crusty Crab appears to have targeted smaller retailers, not big-box stores.

Woolhether said she’s tried to explain the situation to Toney’s office, “but it falls on deaf ears.”

“I feel like we are the store being singled out the way the local supper Club was singled out for COVID-19 violations in 2020,” she said, referring to the 10 criminal complaints the district attorney filed related to violations of Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19 stay-at-home order. The individuals were charged with misdemeanors and faced up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. The owner of the Sunset on the Water, a Fond du Lac tavern, was among those charged. The charges were eventually dropped.

Toney said a district attorney’s office “has no role in the filing of citations of this nature.” The citations, he said, are filed with the court by the DNR, similar to how a speeding ticket is issued.

“I was not involved in the investigation and the case is being handled by an ADA,” Toney said in an email response to Empower Wisconsin on Wednesday. “We don’t litigate cases through the media and I have no specific comments related to the facts of the case.”

Everson said district attorneys have full discretion in who they charge and don’t charge.

“From ordinance level all the way through a felony, that’s the leadership role we elect the district attorneys to have, to be the person to make those decisions,” the defense attorney said.

Toney chafed at Woolhether’s comments about special treatment.

“My office does not give special treatment to individuals based on who they are or what their status is. My office has prosecuted cops, a district attorney, lawmakers, and a professional athlete without favoritism. We treat everyone equally under the law,” Toney said.

Everson says Natural World Aquariums, operated in large part by animal-loving volunteers, brings in less than $10,000 a year in income. The attorney said his client cannot continue to operate the pet store “with these types of fines and selective prosecution.”

“We do a lot of good for the community but don’t make much money,” Woolhether said. “We have been told if we don’t fork over the money the District Attorney is going to file more citations or even criminal charges.”

She noted the case of Ryan Koenigs, formerly the DNR’s top sturgeon biologist. He was convicted last year on charges of resisting a warden. Koenigs was ordered to pay a $50 fine following an investigation into the illegal processing of sturgeon eggs into caviar. He subsequently resigned after he pleaded no contest to resisting a conservation warden in another county related to the same investigation. He paid a $500 fine on that charge.

“I’m a 70-year-old woman and it takes two DNR agents to come in and harass me,” the store owner said.

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