Bills on local watershed development, DNR regulations and animal contact pass committee

February 11, 2021

Several bills with potential environmental effects have made their way through the Indiana House Natural Resources Committee and will now be considered by the full House of Representatives.


HB 1055, authored by Rep. Mike Aylesworth, would give county executives the power to designate their counties as members of a proposed watershed development commission. That commission would then become a legal entity if it is recognized by the Indiana Natural Resources Commission.

The bill outlines the steps counties would have to take along the process to get the commission created and approved. If approved, the commission would then be able to raise money to mitigate flooding, enhance drainage and address other water infrastructure needs, Aylesworth testified at the committee hearing.

“This is not something they’re going to be allowed to go out and administer and do on a willy-nilly basis. This is a close rein and check by the Department of Natural Resources. I worked with DNR on this to try to get it at a happy place,” Aylesworth said.

Some representatives expressed concern about how widespread commissions would affect existing multi-county commissions like the Kankakee River Basin Commission and the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission.

The committee voted to approve the bill 10 votes to 2 and now moves to the full House for consideration. Some representatives suggested the bill could become the subject of an interim study committee, which would further investigate the effects of the proposed legislation.

Aylesworth said he would support sending the full bill to the interim study committee.


HB 1395, an omnibus bill authored by DNR and sponsored by Rep. Sean Eberhart, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, changes several administrative DNR enforcement matters.

One of the facets of the bill that may affect the public the most is a proposal to notify the public of new rules adopted by the Natural Resources Commission through electronic means, instead of publishing notice in a newspaper.

“As written, this would only apply to new rules. We kind of view this as a middle-of-the-road opportunity to test out the ability to do electronic notification that would be a small cost savings as currently written, and be a trial run to be able to explore further notices in the future,” said David Bausman, DNR legislative and public policy director.

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier Press Association, said he had some concerns about the DNR’s public notice proposal.

“These rules are already being posted on the DNR website. So, by eliminating the publication requirement, all we’re doing is not adding to any kind of public ability to see these rules, but reducing the public opportunity to see the rules because they would no longer be in their relevant newspapers,” Key said.

The bill passed the committee unanimously, and is now headed to the full House.


HB 1395, known as the “Cub Protection Act”, was authored by Rep. David Abbott. The bill makes having direct contact with certain exotic animals against the law.

The bill would make it illegal for anyone besides various categories of trained professionals to have direct contact with lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, mountain lions or bears.

Anyone who owns those animals would not be allowed to let a member of the public have direct contact with them, regardless of the animal’s age.

Abbott said one of the main intents of the bill was to protect people and animals by preventing disease transmission.

“It’s always a concern when you interact with exotic animals. Back in May 2020, the USDA advised facilities to discontinue public contact with big cats after confirming that tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York contracted COVID-19. Since then, additional big cats, as well as gorillas, have tested positive for COVID at multiple zoos and sanctuaries, most recently in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the children’s zoo,” said Abbott.

Two Sumatran tigers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo tested positive for COVID-19. Zoo staff said they have not found the source of infection.

The bill was also written to keep unqualified Hoosiers from having and mistreating potentially dangerous wild animals.

Abbott cited the case of Tim Stark, former owner of Wildlife in Need, a wild animal park in Charlestown, as a reason the bill was necessary.

Stark and his park were briefly featured in the Netflix documentary series Tiger King.

Stark owned nearly 200 animals at his park. The USDA pulled his license to run the park soon after the series aired, due to allegations of animal abuse and neglect.

The state of Indiana sued Stark for misrepresenting his nonprofit organization’s activities, and the Indiana Zoological Society removed more than 160 animals, including 37 big cats like cougars, fishing cats and ocelots.

Stark later faced several felony charges. He fled to New York, but was arrested and returned to Indiana.

The bill passed the committee 9 votes to 2 and is now headed to the full House for consideration.

Bills on local watershed development, DNR regulations and animal contact pass committee