The massive whitetail buck had evaded coyotes when he was a youngster, fought off antlered competitors in his middle years and outwitted a slew of hunters in the fading twilight of his life. In the end, however, the monarch was found by ranch hands near a boundary fence parallel to a county road.
It didnít take much to piece together what had transpired: The buck had been seen from the roadway by someone tooling past with little regard for much, who also happened to have a rifle and decided to use it. Upon downing the deer, the person figured it would be too much work to mess with the animal or cover their crime, and simply drove away into the fading light.
Much to the chagrin of wildlife enforcement officers, there is a strong criminal element that continues to do things that boggle the mind. Whether they do it out of spite or because they donít know any better, those who break wildlife laws continue to soil the reputation of the law-abiding hunter or angler.
Thanks in large part to the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game, anti-poaching programs have sprung up in every state in the last three decades.
The NMDFG started Operation Game Thief in 1977 as a way to stem the poaching tide in the state. The program was modeled after Crime Stoppers, which began in 1976 in Albuquerque, N.M., and has achieved unprecedented success. OGT offers rewards like the Crime Stoppers program. If a lawbreaker is arrested or issued a citation on the basis of information provided by an anonymous caller, a reward is authorized.
OGT operations and other anti-poaching programs in each state have hotlines that are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some states also have an online form anonymous tippers can fill out.
In most cases, states will quantify the reward amount based on the severity of the crime: New Mexico rewards are $750 for cases involving elk and bighorn sheep; $500 for deer and oryx; $350 for antelope; and $250 for turkey, bear, cougar, javelina, ibex, barbary sheep, endangered species, small game, fish, raptors and furbearers.
If an animal is deemed a trophy based on Safari Club International measurements, poachers can face stiffer monetary penalties and possible jail time.
Case in point: Though many state wildlife agencies employ deer decoys as a way to goad prospective lawbreakers into doing something foolish so they can catch them in the act, like shooting at a deer from a roadway, officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission likely got the strangest reaction from a 16-year-old boy last week any of them could possibly imagine. According to FWC reports, officers had placed a decoy near a roadway in a wildlife management area. Soon after, a teenager slowly approached in a pickup and then gunned the engine, heading straight for the decoy in an attempt to run it over.
Reports show the driver fled after nearly hitting the dumbstruck deer, but was caught up to a few miles down the road. He subsequently admitted to spotting the deer and trying to run it over, and was cited for trying to kill a deer by illegal methods, reckless driving and attempting to take a game animal after legal hours.
This goes to show whatever game wardens and other wildlife officers are getting paid isnít near enough and that brazen wildlife lawbreakers are here to stay.
It also illustrates that some people shouldnít be allowed to procreate.
Texas success: Over the life of Operation Game Thief in Texas, more than 28,000 calls have been received from concerned citizens, more than $1,180,000 in fines have been assessed and more than $195,000 in rewards have been doled out.
Buddy Turner, assistant chief of wildlife enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said Operation Game Thief, adopted in Texas in 1981, is crucial to stopping many wildlife violations. He also said people who witness something illegal should call the toll-free hotline, (800) 792-GAME, with as much detailed information as possible as soon as they can after witnessing or hearing about any type of wildlife violation.
"What we have all the time is people call on Monday after they see something Saturday," Turner said. "People need to call as soon as they witness a violation."
The OGT hotline also can be used to report other violations, something some people might not think about, Turner said.
"We have a special investigations team that targets environmental crime also," Turner said. "We also will take calls for pollution violations, arson in state parks and antiquities violations, like people digging up artifacts."
Turner said because game wardens and other department personnel are few and far between across a state as big as Texas, the OGT program is good for reporting things that often might go unnoticed and unpunished.
"The one thing people should know is itís a critical link between the public and game wardens, and it takes all of us to keep a lid on this stuff," Turner said.
For more information on Texasí Operation Game Thief program, visit www.ogttx.com.
Will Leschper is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.