Western game wardens go after poachers

by Larry Keller

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."

© High Country News