Policing wildlife cheaters no easy task
RENO – Faced with the daunting task of protecting wildlife across the remote reaches of the West, game wardens are using professional savvy, a gift of gab and a bit of technology to snare big game cheaters who commit fraud and even identity theft to illegally obtain coveted wildlife licenses.
“They’re criminals with guns is what they are,” said Craig Sax, a game warden in Cody, Wyo.
It’s all too common for hunters to claim residence in states where they don’t live because states generally reserve the most tags for their residents. Resident sportsmen’s licenses also typically cost much less than nonresident licenses, with the price difference escalating for big-game tags. In Nevada, an out-of-state elk tag costs $1,000 more than a resident tag.
Others make up names, or use the name of a friend or someone who’s dead, officials said.
“They’ll give different addresses, different dates of birth, and try to portray themselves as totally different people to enhance their opportunities,” said Rob Buonamici of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“People from all walks of life do it,” said Russ Pollard of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s your doctors, your lawyers, professional people.”
A former Nevada state wildlife commissioner and his son pleaded no contest last month to providing false information to obtain a resident hunting license for the son, who lived in Utah.
In Wyoming, a top prosecutor for Salt Lake County, Utah, pleaded no contest to 10 wildlife license violations.
Investigating license fraud is difficult and time consuming. And with wardens responsible for policing thousands of square miles, many if not most cases go undetected. Nevada has 35 field wardens to cover 110,000 square miles. Utah has 72.
“When you get thousands of hunters in the state, the chance of being checked are very slim,” said Rudy Musclow of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Though it’s difficult to tell how much license cheaters cost state wildlife agencies – most are funded primarily by license and other user fees – officials say the losses are substantial.
“In my opinion, we feel we are losing lots and lots of money by people doing this,” said Glenn Smith of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
License fraud victimizes habitat and animals that come under increased pressure from hunters, and residents whose opportunities are limited by increased competition.
Ron Day, law enforcement coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said more cheaters will be caught as states convert to computerized licensing systems instead of handwritten permits sold by local vendors.
“We’re real close (to) where everything will be on a computer,” said Day.
In the field, officers rely on professional savvy and a smooth tongue to spot cheaters. Officers may learn the sportsman doesn’t know the area, or even his supposed hometown, said Lt. Walt Markee, wildlife investigator with the Oregon State Police.
Fines can vary widely, from less than $100 to more than $10,000, depending on the state and whether a hunter used the illegally obtained license to secure a game tag and bag an animal.
Nineteen states around the West and as far east as Maryland have joined the Wildlife Violator Compact – a list started in 1991 and containing the names of the most serious offenders. Names of people barred from hunting for wildlife violations are shared among participating states. Violators cannot get a hunting license in any of the states.