Western game wardens go after poachers

  • Dave Harper, district wildlife manager from Dolores, Colorado, holds a trophy rack cut from the skull of a deer by poachers.

    Colorado Division of Wildlife
  • Brad Banulis, terrestrial biologist in Montrose, Colorado, examines the head of a deer that was poached in the fall of 2005 on the Uncompahgre Plateau. The antlers were cut from the animal and the carcass left to rot.

    Division of Wildlife, Joe Lewandowski

A thick autumn snowfall still carpeted the ground when Colorado district wildlife manager Tom Knowles got the tip that put him on the trail of the "Missouri boys." The informant, a hunter named Michael Xavier, said that three men who had licenses only for cow elk had killed at least one bull elk in Rio Blanco County, in the north-central part of the state.

Knowles visited the hunting camp where Xavier saw the men. There, a camper named Doug Harlow told Knowles that he also saw the trio -- whom he called the "Missouri boys" -- bringing meat back from the woods two days earlier. They told him they'd shot a cow, but Harlow wondered; they "were covered in blood from head to toe and seemed to have a lot of meat for just one cow," he said.

Knowles followed the men's tracks for perhaps two miles to an elk carcass. The meat had been taken and the skull plate sliced off, suggesting that it was a bull whose antlers were removed. Knowles' job requires him to be part outdoorsman, part detective and part coroner. He took photos and used a metal detector near a bullet wound in the animal's neck. Cutting into the elk, he followed the bullet's path and extracted two metal fragments. He also sliced out a DNA sample. The animal, he suspected, had been poached.

Poaching involves everything from killing or possessing endangered wildlife and fish to killing more than the legal limit of a species, hunting out of season, and killing without the correct license. It's a serious problem for Western states. Ironically, the fact that poachers seldom bother to buy hunting licenses means that states are also deprived of the revenue they rely on to protect wildlife.

Illegal killing reduces the game available to people who legally shoot animals, whether with bullets, arrows or cameras. Poaching also plays havoc with biologists' ability to manage wildlife populations, and in extreme cases, it can critically weaken a species' gene pool or threaten its very existence. According to the National Park Service's 2005 budget request, illegal removal of wildlife from national parks was a possible factor in the decline of 29 species, and could actually wipe out 19 species from the parks. Since 2005, the incidence of wildlife poaching in parks has increased by at least 60 percent, according to agency records.

According to some estimates, for every wild animal killed legally in the U.S., another is taken illegally. "You pick a natural resource and if it has value, there are criminals out there looking to take advantage," says Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "If I wanted to go out and poach, I believe I could get away with it 99.5 percent of the time," he says. "We just can't keep up."

Knowles got the tip that led him to the dead elk from Operation Game Thief, a poaching hotline administered by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Callers can remain anonymous and need not testify in court. In 30 years, the program has received more than 2,400 tips, resulting in more than 700 convictions and $600,000 in fines. Wildlife agents have seized more than 1,300 illegally taken animals and paid nearly $130,000 in rewards to tipsters. All Western states have similar hotlines and other effective anti-poaching programs in place. Despite everything, however, poaching still flourishes.

"The general feeling is there isn't any more and there isn't any less, but the public is more aware of it and willing to come forward," says Brian Shinn, the coordinator of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks hotline, which receives about 2,000 calls a year. Since 1985, the hotline has generated 13,540 tips, resulting in 1,521 convictions and more than $1 million in fines and restitution. Idaho's Citizens Against Poaching hotline has received 3,214 calls in the past five years, resulting in 653 citations.

In Utah, there were 906 documented illegal kills in fiscal year 2011. The state collected more than $164,000 in restitution from culprits, but could have gotten an additional $392,000 had every poacher been caught. Like other states, Utah also loses an unknown amount of revenue from poachers not buying a license and tag, or out-of-state hunters fraudulently purchasing in-state documents. A resident elk tag, for example, costs $45, while it's $388 for a non-resident.

In the past few years, Western states have also seen an increase in so-called spree poaching, in which many wild animals are killed at the same time. In Washington state last year, three men fired approximately 50 shots into a herd of elk and left the five they killed to rot. Another Washington man pleaded guilty last year to poaching five deer and was sentenced to five months in jail; game officers said he might have slaughtered 100 or more animals illegally over a span of five to 10 years. That case inspired a new state law making the killing of three or more big game animals "in the same course of events" a felony.

"The two biggest factors that drive poaching are greed and ego," says Bob Thompson, acting chief of law enforcement at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. A black-bear gallbladder, coveted in some Asian nations for alleged medicinal benefits, can sell for up to $4,000 on the black market; in California, possession of more than one is considered evidence of criminal intent. California game wardens busted three men in July who were hunting several nights a week for deer and selling the meat to a network of buyers. Antlers and horns from trophy elk and bighorn sheep can fetch six figures, Thompson says. "There are people that want the biggest or best on their wall."

Michael Xavier, the tipster, first met the Missouri boys when he camped near them in late October 2010, at East Miller Creek about 55 miles northeast of Rifle. They seemed like a friendly bunch. Brothers Derek and Craig Buzzard and their friend Derek "Petey" Crockett hailed from a small town near Joplin and told Xavier that they had cow elk hunting tags.

A snowstorm forced the men from the camp, but Xavier spoke by phone to the Buzzards that night. The men agreed to hunt together the next day. In the morning, however, there was no sign of them, although Xavier saw their maroon Dodge truck.

Later that day, he called Derek Buzzard, who curtly told him they were headed home to Missouri with a cow elk they had bagged. Xavier asked Buzzard if he knew of a good hunting spot in East Miller Creek. Just follow our tracks, Buzzard said; we were the only ones hunting there. Xavier did -- and found that the tracks dead-ended at an elk carcass with the skullcap removed. "I knew then why they left for Missouri in such a hurry," he later wrote in a statement for wildlife officials. He called Operation Game Thief.

After district wildlife manager Knowles followed the tracks to that first dead elk, he spotted a second and third elk in the frozen woods nearby, also with their skullcaps gone and the meat de-boned. Knowles again took photos and DNA samples, and extracted bullets and bullet fragments. A records check later that day showed that the three Missouri hunters did in fact have only cow elk licenses. Knowles and a colleague contacted their counterparts in the Missouri Department of Conservation with the evidence.

Colorado and Missouri are among the three dozen states that participate in the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. (Every Western state is a member.) Under the compact, a poacher from a member state who is accused of a non-felony wildlife violation in another member state can be charged as if he or she were a resident. If hunting or fishing privileges are suspended or revoked in one member state, the same sanctions also apply in all member states.

When Missouri officers confronted all three men at their homes on Halloween night, they confessed and provided written statements. "If it wasn't for the nonstop snowing, we probably would have had a lot better judgment on our hunt," Craig Buzzard wrote. Crockett admitted that he shot what he thought was a cow, only to discover it was a small bull. "I paniced (sic) and didn't know what to do and didn't want to waist (sic) meat so brought it home," he wrote. "Huge mistake." Each of the men was fined $2,851 and relinquished the elk meat and antlers. Their hunting privileges were suspended for two years.

This investigation was successful, but the vast majority of poachers are never caught. And state financial woes only make it harder to nab lawbreakers, says Elise Traub, a spokeswoman for the wildlife abuse campaign of the Humane Society of the United States: "Because of the economy and the push to trim budgets, wardens are being stretched even thinner." In Montana, for example, each game warden is responsible for about 2,000 square miles. The California Department of Fish and Game reported last year that its game warden force is at about the same level as in the 1970s, although the state's population has increased by 36 percent. Washington wildlife officials say that since 1994, the number of wardens has dropped by more than 20 percent, while population has increased by a similar percentage.

Without hotlines like Operation Game Thief, however, the success rate would be far less. "Seventy-five to 85 percent of our calls are about crimes we would not have detected without those calls," says Chris Wright, assistant chief of enforcement at Idaho Fish and Game. Tom Knowles agrees: "We're always encouraging the public, because they're our eyes," he says. "There are only so many of us."

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Nov 30, 2011 11:35 AM
Last night's Tucson news covered the discovery of bald eagle remains 'buried' in a paper sack near Gates Pass. The absence of critical feathers points to rationale for the killing, but Gates Pass isn't rez land. The missing feathers don't mean the poacher was native; pale imitators abound. And for them, there's no excuse.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Nov 30, 2011 01:00 PM
Poaching is the theft of opportunity from all of us. As your article notes, TIPS from honest hunters are our best defense.
Here's a suggestion -- create a classy TIP vehicle-window sticker to spread the anti-poaching message and as a warning that poachers always risk apprehension. Such a public message could help to elevate both the actual and the perceived risk of apprehension, and thereby have a helpful deterrent effect, wouldn't you think.
Raphael Subscriber
Nov 30, 2011 01:37 PM
"According to some estimates, for every wild animal killed legally in the U.S., another is taken illegally".

There we go: one out of two hunters is a criminal. The other is just a worthless killer.

"The two biggest factors that drive poaching are greed and ego," says Bob Thompson, acting chief of law enforcement at Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

And the biggest factor that drives legal hunting is ego (not hunger, and not the love of the outdoors, as nature can be enjoyed without a gun).
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 03, 2011 11:59 AM
I'm a poacher.

Just thought I'd put that out there in the beginning to avoid any misunderstanding. Of late I'm in good company as the Chairman of the Montana State Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission is also a poacher but his crime was much more recent and he got busted. http://www.washingtonpost.com/[…]/gIQA341KHO_story.html

My poaching happened some thirty years ago and I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations is up.

It was a busy snowy evening in Boulder Canyon and commuters were backed up in the dark headed around a car pulled over to the side of the road. There lay a deer doing it's final dance, it chose the moment we walked up to cease movement and stare out into forever.

My partner in crime who will go un named suggested, "oh, it's just sleeping probably" he likes to joke with Boulder people even if they don't know he's funnin. I, touching it's eye with the toe of my boot announced, "this one's dead", and I got some help from hangers around putting it in the back of my truck so that I could, "give it a proper burial".

Neck broke up high, some damage to a front quarter, gut sack intact, good eating.

Where's the crime you ask? Well unknown to me in Colorado you have 48 hours to get a road damage tag. http://coloradosenate.org/[…]/roadkill-it-s-what-s-for-dinner and that's part of the way you get a statistic like "half the animals are taken through poaching".

You see any breaking of any wildlife law in the take of animals is poaching. If you give someone some meat as a gift you need to make sure a note with your license number and all pertinent information accompanies that meat until consumed. Note doesn't have license number and date of kill? If you've accepted it you too might be a poacher.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Dec 03, 2011 12:56 PM
We all know that anti-hunters like Raphael don't understand hunters at all. In my own case, following return from serving as a combat Marine in Vietnam, I had no interest in firearms and while getting on with college and grad school and raising a young family, I didn't own a firearm for the following 12 years. It was the yearning for reconnecting with nature that got me to buy a rifle and get back into the field, deer hunting. It took me 3 years to even get a shot at a small deer, but I was hooked on the wonderful opportunities that hunting provides one to sleuth through the forest and camp in the snow alone here in my home state of Minnesota. Then I turned West, and as our daughters and son came of age, we have had much better success over the years since. pretty much raising our family on the healthy meat of the animals that we harvest each fall. We shoot a modest trophy buck or bull now and then, but mostly just meat hunt. Besides savoring the meat, and enjoying the challenge of planning ever more challenging self-guided public-land hike-in hunts, we've also grown to value habitat protection, nature photography, summer backpacking in the alpine, river rafting, and learning about endangered species protection, ranching history, the challenges presented by new energy development, and a host of other topics and hobbies. We've added a summer trip west each year, as well, to wander the backroads, camping under the stars, howling with the wolves, viewing wildlife, and especially photographing wildflowers wherever we find them. I'm too old now to hunt effectively, but still like to tag along to deer and elk camp in the western wildernesses, helping out with the planning, cooking, meat-care, and story-telling, carrying my old rifle, but mostly using my new camera and making up albums and videos back home during the winter. Beyond all that, my family and I treasure the quiet moments that these wanderings provide for closeness with one another and with our creator, who makes all these things possible. In our lives, it was the sport of hunting that led us to all these worthy pursuits and wonderful nature discoveries. Hunting is not everything to us, but it has its place. It's a key part of our connection with nature and an important expression of our freedom, and we treasure the opportunity immensely. We wish all our fellow nature lovers -- hunters and non-hunters alike -- could understand and appreciate that.
Raphael Subscriber
Dec 03, 2011 06:00 PM
Jim, I understand your connection to nature and I am glad you were able to do that. I have always said that the outdoors are my "church". But no one needs a gun to appreciate nature, unless in grizzly country, and it is unfortunate that people cannot just decide to go into nature for the sake of it and feel they need the excuse of hunting to allow themselves to connect with the outdoors. What would be wrong with enjoying nature just for the sake of enjoying nature, without having to validate it or find an excuse to do it that is found more "acceptable" by society?

Like many guys going fishing don't really care if they catch anything, they just want to be out there, but they feel that it would not be understood (by their wives, families, friends?), so they have to "pretend" going fishing, when all they want is just be in nature, period.

It strikes me as strange.

As far as the killing of wild animal, that's another topic...I can understand the killing of game for meat. I do not understand killing for trophy, or shooting bears or wolves. That is totally unjustified in my opinion, and if I was in the wilds and armed, I would have a tendency to want to side with the wolves and against the hunters, so I hope never to find myself in this situation.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 03, 2011 06:21 PM
Stephanie I know it's probably Monday morning but all this fantasizing of killing people gets old (see above), on that deer/mountain bike thread it was joking about killing another commenter with a car, surely there must come a point.
Raphael Subscriber
Dec 03, 2011 07:48 PM
Robb, I assure you there is no need to be outraged or to panic, in the first comment I was just being stupid (the deer/mountain bike article), and in this comment I am just making a point of how strongly I feel about animals such as wolves being massacred by so-called hunters.

But I am the most gentle person you could ever meet, I do not possess any weapons and never will, and I have never committed an act of violence in my life.

I understand your point however, that it is unsettling to read such things from the same person within a couple of days. I should have expressed it differently. Sometimes, the outrage is so intense (about wolves for example), that it is difficult to express.

But I know we live in a very violent culture, in a nation that promotes endless war and that is kind of obsessed with guns, a nation that is the largest weapon manufacturer and weapon dealer in the world, so I understand the inappropriateness of my words...honestly, I am not being sarcastic (well may be a little), but I do understand. There are so many crazy people out there, armed and dangerous, some of them drug addicts or alcoholics, or just plain unintelligent, that it is not something that can either be the subject of a joke or used to make a point. You don't joke about insanity in a insane asylum (:
Raphael Subscriber
Dec 03, 2011 08:26 PM
I came across this online newspaper through an article about redwoods being targeted for destruction in Northern California, and Robert Redford, who is active in many worthwhile causes, mentioning this publication.

However, judging by the readership, I would say that this is not my type of publication...I am not a cowboy, or a hunter (obviously), and the west is not part of my culture. I enjoy the outdoors, but do not identify with the west mentality...

So I am sorry for having temporarily ruffled people's feathers...but I believe in freedom, so although my opinions are strong on hunting, on compassion, I also believe we are all free to live the life we choose.

Anyway, I am outta here, riding into the sunset (not!)
So long pilgrims...
Megan Drimal
Megan Drimal Subscriber
Dec 04, 2011 10:06 PM
Raphael, in my book, better to carry pepper spray while hunting in grizzly country. guns are for shooting prey...in my book.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Dec 05, 2011 06:34 PM
Folks, I've read everything available on the Bear defense issue, including the seminal book of the notable Canadian biologist, Stephen Hererro, and other professionals over the years, including all the survival stories collected by former Outdoor Life editor Ben East during the past century, and many others. There are no simple answers regarding what to carry for Bear defense, but I believe that, together, you are both correct. Along with Professor Hererro, I'd recommend that you carry BOTH Perpperspray and a Big-Bore firearm (e.g. a .44 mag revolver). I'd carry them both positioned for quick use, but given a choice I'd reach for the Pepperspray first, unless it's a windy day or raining.

Most of us hunters would be far better able to quickly aim and use the pepperspray than a gun of any kind. The spray would be safer for others in the area, especially if a buddy were under attack with the bear on the buddy's back. Spray would also be safer at night, or in a campground. Finally, Spray is less likely to result in a dead bear, but it sure would teach a bear to avoid humans, and a female bear would teach that to its cubs, as well.
Nevertheless, if you feel comfortable with a big-bored revolver, I'd carry one of them, as well. As a backup too.

Finally, I'd try to avoid bears in the first place. The problem is, however, that we can't very well force people there before us to do the right thing to avoid food-conditioning the bear.

I once spoke with a just-retired 40-year hunting guide and his wife, and asked about Grizzlies in his guiding area near Cody, Wy. They related that in the last year, the guide saved their teen grandson's life while hunting elk by means of a quick shot of pepperspray from the cannister in the guide's belt holster. I asked the old guide why, when he had to make a split second choice, he chose the pepperspray over his elk rifle to stop the big Grzzly. He said he never would have had time to unshoulder, aim and shoot his rifle during the Bear's quick charge for the fleeing grandson. I can't imagine many hunters being quicker with a firearm than that experienced guide. The lesson for me is to rely on Pepperspray if at all possible, and to carry a backup Bear-sized pistol (a Ruger Alaskan in .44 mag) on my chest in case the Spray didn't work.
Raphael Subscriber
Dec 05, 2011 08:47 PM
One last comment...
I have never been in a Grizzly bear area except in Canada...did not see any. When hiking and camping in bear country I have learnt to make noise in order not to surprise a bear.

I did surprise a brown bear once...a mother with two cubs, in a forest with heavy vegetation, and no place to move. They were very close, and the cubs immediately climbed trees. I never carry a weapon of any kind, so while the mother bear got on her hind legs and faced me, about 12 feet away, I simply sat down and looked away, and remained very calm. After 10 minutes, the cubs came down, and they all walked away.

Animals smell fear (stress hormones), and it makes them aggressive. But I would not try this with a grizzly. Grizzly will do a mock charge hoping you will start running...then you are toast. It takes good nerves not to run and stay in place while facing a charging grizzly unarmed and without pepper spray...or may be some practice and a strong belief in the afterlife.

I also had encounters with mountain lions, and with packs of coyotes in the middle of the night...never carrying any weapons, except a good camping knife. I never had to be aggressive with them, I just remained very calm. In the wilderness, I trust animals more than I trust human beings.
Megan Drimal
Megan Drimal Subscriber
Dec 05, 2011 10:01 PM
Thanks, Jim, for your perspective and experience. We carry spray in the Absarokas and make a lot of noise to alert bears of our presence,as Raphael suggests. We also hang food (and anything scented) and cook a good distance from our tent. I'm a pacifist who eats meat (go figure), so I don't "believe" in self defense regardless of the circumstances. But, then, who knows how I would respond viscerally to someone (bear, human or other) attacking my son. Perhaps I would wish for a powerful gun. I figure I cross a certain line by stepping into the wilderness and if pepper spray doesn't do the job, then that's my choice. This is, of course, a very personal decision and I think your suggestion to carry both pepper spray and an adequate firearm is advisable for those who wish to have every defense available to them. As well, I very much appreciate your insight to the challenge of positioning a firearm in time to shoot a charging bear. I am not a hunter myself, so have no sense of the details, timing, and attention involved. Raphael, it's just my observation, but it seems you do not like humans much. I'm sorry to gather this from your comments...we're pretty smart, friendly, compassionate animals when we're treated as such. Thanks.