The recent poaching arrest of four men from South Carolina by Colorado Parks and Wildlife has prompted public discussion and debate about the importance of ethical hunting. It also illustrates how seriously the agency, law-abiding hunters and many residents take illegal wildlife activity.
After a lengthy investigation by state and federal wildlife officials, George Plummer, Michael Courtney, Joseph Nevling and James Cole were arrested Sept. 7 near Collbran for suspicion of violating a variety of wildlife laws, including using a powerful toxin attached to their arrows, hunting after legal hours, using bow-mounted electronic or battery-powered devices, and hunting bear, deer and elk over bait.
“In Colorado, wildlife regulations exist for three main reasons,” said Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for Parks and Wildlife. “There are biological reasons, safety reasons and ‘fair chase’ considerations.
“The use of poisons or toxicants to hunt is a very unethical method of hunting, violating the tenets of fair chase and can also be very dangerous to the user,” he said.
Velarde said such use allows a hunter to take an irresponsible shot, relying on the effects of the drugs to kill the animal rather than skill, patience, discipline and a well-placed shot.
During the course of the yearlong investigation, the four men were placed under surveillance by investigators from Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of the overwhelming amount of incriminating evidence investigators gathered, the four men quickly pleaded guilty to the illegal activity. Plummer, considered the leader of the group, admitted to officers that he had used poisoned arrows in Colorado for the last 20 years while fully aware that it is illegal in this state.
The four accepted a plea bargain and agreed to pay more than $10,000 in fines for the use of the toxicant and for illegal possession of big game. They forfeited all evidence seized in the case, including four Mathews compound bows, arrows and quivers, an ATV, night-vision goggles, flashlights mounted on their bows, coolers containing game meat, animal hides, the poison and the arrow-mounted pods used to inject the drug into the elk, deer and bear they killed.
All four men received a four-year deferred sentence on charges of illegal possession of three or more big game animals, which can result in fines of up to $10,000 per animal and a year in prison if they violate terms of the deferred sentence. During the four years, the men are banned from hunting in Colorado.
Each defendant also must attend a hearing before a Parks and Wildlife hearings officer where they may receive an additional lifetime suspension of hunting privileges in Colorado and 38 other Wildlife Violator Compact states, including their home state of South Carolina. The four men also agreed to make donations, ranging from $250 to $1,000 each to Operation Game Thief, an anonymous tip line for wildlife violations.
“Many poaching cases are brought to our attention by a concerned hunter or member of the public who has observed illegal activity and has acted responsibly to stop it,” said Michael Blanck, Parks and Wildlife’s district wildlife manager in Collbran.
In several recent high-profile poaching cases in Colorado – including the arrest of eight men from Michigan, Indiana and Colorado for extensive, multistate illegal wildlife activity – an investigation began with a tip from the public, either directly to a wildlife officer, or anonymously through Operation Game Thief.
Officials stress that even the most seemingly insignificant tip can help bring an offender to justice.
“If you think you have seen something suspicious, give us or (Operation Game Thief) a call,” Blanck said. “A minor detail can be the missing piece that completes an investigation, or it may be the info we need to begin an investigation that will stop a poacher.”
While impossible to estimate the amount of poaching that occurs, by some estimates, poachers might take as much wildlife illegally as legitimate hunters. In many cases, the criminals take only “trophy” parts and leave the meat to waste, a serious offense that can yield felony charges and time in prison.
Law-enforcement officials say that while most poachers commit their crimes for profit, others seem to have darker motives, including a willful disregard for wildlife regulations or a psychological compulsion. Many experienced law-enforcement officials say that only in extremely rare cases will a poacher illegally kill wildlife for food.
“Poachers are not hunters; they are criminals, plain and simple,” said Dean Riggs, deputy regional manager for Parks and Wildlife. “They steal wildlife from the citizens of Colorado, take opportunity away from ethical hunters and have a negative impact on wildlife management objectives.”
Poachers should be aware that wildlife investigators are diligent and tenacious in their efforts to bring offenders to justice and use many of the same investigative tools and high-tech forensic methods used by all law-enforcement agencies, Riggs said.
As the hunting seasons progress, wildlife officials remind hunters to be observant and report illegal wildlife activity quickly. Because wildlife officers have a large territory to cover, they depend on the public to help bring offenders to justice.
“We have very hardworking officers and investigators, but they cannot be everywhere,” Velarde said. “We ask the public to help us manage their wildlife and report illegal wildlife activity as soon as possible.”