War in the Wild Against Poachers. Undermanned US agencies police illegal, multimillion-dollar, kill-for-profit activities. WILDLIFE PROTECTION
BUENA VISTA, COLO. — `IT was a nice, calm, beautiful morning as I recall,'' says Montana Game Warden Ron Carlson, remembering the day when state and federal law enforcers closed in on the illegal activities of many poachers in Yellowstone National Park. ``A large collection of officers from all sorts of federal and state agencies here broke down into groups to go arrest the people.'' Called Operation Trophy Kill, its mission was to stop the wanton killing of big game and the flow of animal contraband in and around the park. During the first three-years of the ``sting'' operation, 50 people were charged with poaching.
The unofficial leader of the loose band of poachers around the area was a hunter named Loren Ellison. ``[He] started out poaching a little here and there, started getting anti-establishment, then got into drugs,'' Mr. Carlson says. ``He was someone to be reckoned with.'' Mr. Ellison illegally killed animals in the park and sold the antlers to undercover federal agents during the sting. Authorities waited three years to establish a strong enough case against him. During that time he also killed 14 golden eagles and sold them for $200 each. Ellison is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.
Operation Trophy Kill is now four years old. Although penalties for those convicted are severe, poaching in the park still still goes on. Fifty-seven people were arrested on poaching charges in Colorado last week.
According to Ranger, the journal of the Association of National Park Rangers, $250,000 worth of elk horns was sold last year around Yellowstone alone.
``But across the whole country, approximately $1 billion are spent on wildlife products,'' says Jerry Smith, deputy chief of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Law Enforcement. Some of the products are obtained legally, but most of the killing is covert and illegal. ``It doesn't take long for the numbers to climb when you consider the going rate for a gyrfalcon is $100,000,'' Mr. Smith says. The animals are sold to black market dealers who ship them to outlets from New York to Seoul. The annual income places the poaching industry high in the ranks of the Fortune 500 companies. And with large foreign markets to supply, the industry is expanding.
By definition, poaching is the illegal taking of wildlife. And according to Neil Hartman, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent in Denver, poachers will do almost anything for profit. ``Poachers will go out into the wild and take some type of wildlife that's protected by state or federal law without being licensed to do so, through fraudulent licenses, out of season, over limits, taking by some unlawful method, or after hours,'' Mr. Hartman explains. These methods are particularly damaging to animal populations.
A recent sting operation is Operation Smokey, which centers around the Appalachian Mountains in the Southeast. Federal officials arrested 52 people involved in the killing, transporting, and buying of illegal black bear parts. The operation was a lot like a drug bust. In fact, wildlife enforcement officers say their job is similar to enforcing drug laws. The illegal activity is covert, it deals with contraband, and it is done randomly to elude authorities. The black bear's gall bladder, which in oriental folk medicine is believed to be a potent medicine and aphrodisiac, retails for as much as $5,000.
Enforcement of wildlife protection laws is difficult considering the variety and extent of poaching. For $10,000 you can hire a guide to fly you into Alaska's interior to kill a grizzly bear from the air. In Florida the endangered manatee (sea cow) and the alligator are hunted illegally. Off the coasts of both Maine and Washington, fish are caught in illegal numbers or in waters that are out of bounds. And in marshes and regional aerial flyways across the nation, migratory waterfowl are destroyed in alarming numbers.
US Fish and Wildlife deputy Jerry Smith says, ``Thousands of ducks and geese are illegally killed every year.'' Birds are easily harvested hundreds at a time as they feed in open fields. This kind of killing damages existing and future populations. When female animals of any kind are killed in large numbers, the populations are impaired in their ability to reproduce.
There isn't enough manpower to patrol vast areas where poaching occurs. Alaska, for example, has millions of square miles of wilderness and just 10 federal agents.
``There are 211 federal agents to cover the entire US,'' Mr. Smith says. ``And there's a total of 9,271 local and federal agents on the local and federal level of enforcement to patrol the entire US. There are more law officers in Dade County, Fla., alone than the total number of wildlife law enforcement officers.''
Randy Hancock, a wildlife manager for Colorado, patrols 800 square miles from his headquarters in Buena Vista. The poaching targets in his district are eagles, bighorn sheep, deer, and elk. He says, ``My job is to catch the everyday folks and provide info that would help apprehend these people on a higher level.'' In addition to enforcement, Mr. Hancock manages the wildlife populations in his area.
Hancock uses a deer decoy to catch poachers. The two-dimensional device is very realistic, even from 20 yards away. The decoy is set up before legal shooting hours or after the legal hunting season. In one 24-hour period, the decoy generated $2,800 in fines. Poaching efforts generally increase in the spring and summer, when the new growing horns of an elk become valuable. ``The blood antlers are the most valuable in the oriental trade, the spring and summer [activity] is some of the worst that goes on,'' says Hancock. Many poachers will kill a large elk and leave the carcass after sawing off the antlers.
Last year, Hancock broke up a large, local operation that is an example of the national problem. Large numbers of deer were being illegally slaughtered and used as bait for legal and illegal coyote trapping. A coyote pelt is sold legally for $50 to $150.
One of the men he arrested was Rob Van Evry. He and his partner went to trial and were heavily fined. His motives were simple, he says in an interview in Buena Vista. ``It was greed - you know it was greed.''
Van Evry and partner Phil Martinez lost their firearms and vehicles used in illegal trapping. Now a convicted felon, Mr. Martinez will never legally hunt, or own a firearm. Van Evry won't be able to hunt again for two years. ``They came down hard when they busted us, $12,000, 65 misdemeanors, and a felony at one time,'' says Van Evry. In addition to poaching, Van Evry guided illegal hunts for wealthy, out-of-town hunters, who paid anywhere from $75 a day to $1,500 a hunt.
In a multimillion dollar business where all the players are armed, law enforcement officers are cautious. Two Idaho game wardens lost their lives trying to arrest a notorious poacher. Game manager Hancock says, ``Every officer carries either a 357 Magnum or a 9 mm [handgun]. We all carry shotguns. I've never had to fire my weapon and I'm glad. It's something as a law officer you have to think about....''
The Audubon Society, SuperStation TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) and Public Station WETA in Washington, D.C., have teamed up in an effort to make the public more aware of domestic poaching. ``Guns, Greed, and Wildlife,'' an Audubon special, premiered early this month on the Turner Broadcasting System and will be appearing on public television stations across the country.