Illegal Wildlife Activities Investigation Leads to Arrests
A two-year, cooperative investigation by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and New Mexico Game and Fish into the illegal sale of wildlife and the commercial trafficking of trophy heads and antlers led to the execution of a search warrant late Monday afternoon at an Estes Park taxidermy shop. Division officers seized several trophy bighorn sheep, elk, deer, a bear cub and a computer, documents and records. Investigators are also looking into the possible unlawful sale of firearms and other items.
Colorado DOW officers, several agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and agents from the federal Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms seized the evidence related to wildlife violations as well as evidence of other illegal activity.
New Mexico game officers served a search warrant, seized evidence related to wildlife violations and made arrests connected to the case this week in Las Vegas, N.M. Other suspects are currently being interviewed.
Dal Schaefer, a criminal investigator for CDOW, said the case grew from a rash of trophy killings and poachings, primarily of elk and deer, along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Through Operation Game Thief and anonymous tips, game wardens gathered information from the field and amassed enough evidence for the two agencies to tie the crimes to individuals and begin covert investigations.
"The field officers are the ones out there gathering DNA, carcasses and intelligence," Schaefer said. "They gather enough pieces of the puzzle so that investigators can fill in those that are missing. The local game wardens really have their hand on the heartbeat of their communities and know what's going on."
John Bredehoft, chief of law enforcement for the DOW, said poaching and the commercial sale of wildlife is 'big business".
"They are in essence stealing for profit from hunters and others who enjoy seeing these animals," Bredehoft said. "It's frustrating for wildlife officers to find poached carcasses of animals with their heads cut off, and making a case like this really makes all of us feel great that at least some of these folks have been caught".
"We have some of the best investigators in the country, and between them, the field officers and the critically important public support, we will continue to go after these kinds of poachers. It really hurts all of us, because they take the biggest and the best animals."
Heads, mounted animals and antlers can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars to collectors or for craft use, like in antler chandeliers or tables. Antlers and other wildlife parts can also be sold on the oriental market, where they are ground and used in medicines or drugs. World-class trophy big game heads can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A trophy elk head can sell from $500 to thousands of dollars, and a bighorn sheep head alone can sell from $1,000 to $20,000.
"Illegal commercial activities are a high priority for us. They'll do it any time of the year," Bredehoft said. "They make a huge profit, and there is a whole network of people engaged in this activity. It extends not only across state lines, but internationally".
Investigations such as the one that led to the Estes Park search warrant can take 2-3 years, and the DOW executes about 2-3 warrants in major cases per year, he said.
Under Colorado law, wildlife not lawfully acquired is the property of the state, and it is illegal for any individual to sell or receive such wildlife or transport it across state lines. Transporting wildlife across state lines also is a violation of federal law as prohibited by the Lacey Act. New Mexico law is similar. In New Mexico, it is unlawful to possess or sell skins, heads, antlers, horns or claws of protected animals without documentation that they were legally taken or possessed.
"These trophy animals are very valuable to the state's economy," Schaefer said. "The trophy animals are poached, then laundered into the wildlife market. The amount of money people pay for these animals and antlers is unreal".
In this case, investigators posed as horn marketers, or people who make a living out of buying, selling and trading trophy animals, Schaefer said. Once inside the network, officers bought and sold both legal and illegal animal heads and then identified suspects.
"We needed to show that a person had a predisposition to do this," he said. "If a guy is dirty, he'll show himself. And a lot of times, illegal wildlife activity will lead us to other illegal activities. Criminals have diverse portfolios _ they don't put all their eggs in one basket _ and it's typical of individuals who profit off of wildlife to be involved in other illegal activities. This one branched into illegal outfitting and license violations."
Poaching is a serious and costly crime in Colorado, said Glenn Smith, the Division's Operation Game Thief coordinator. "No one knows exact figures, but studies have shown poachers could be killing as many animals and fish as legitimate hunters do during legal seasons," Smith said.
One way the public can help is the DOW's Operation Game Thief program, which pays citizens who turn in poachers. A call is toll-free (800) 332-4155 (Verizon cell phone users can call #OGT), or tips can be turned in via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Callers don?t have to reveal their names or testify in court. Rewards are $250 for big game or endangered species, and $100 for information on other wildlife violations. Awards of up to $1,000 may be given in big cases. The New Mexico Operation Game Thief number is (800) 432-4263, and the agency offers rewards up to $750 for information leading to the arrest of wildlife violators.
"I can't tell you how many times Operation Game Thief and anonymous tips have led us to poachers," Schaefer said. "The public is our eyes and ears and is critical to directing us to the right area. These criminals are raping our resources. That small percentage of people who are illegally harvesting big animals for their heads are taking them from the average person, who won't have a chance to see or hunt them."
The poaching of game and fish also cheats businesses and taxpayers out of the money hunting and fishing generates. Since 1981, over 700 convictions have resulted from Operation Game Thief tips.
"We're out there looking out for the physical well-being of wildlife and trying to protect them, because they don't have anybody else," Schaefer said. "For those stealing our resources, our job is to catch them."
Eric Harper, the DOW's assistant chief of law enforcement, oversees covert investigations, including the Estes Park operation. Harper said there is a legal commercial market to sell wildlife, but only if it has been legally taken.
"Rules and regulations are available from the Division of Wildlife, and they can tell you whether a purchase is lawful," Harper said. "The majority of hunters are law-abiding and want us to catch these types of people as much as we want to catch them. They often help by giving us information that leads to criminals."
Any person that kills a bighorn sheep in Colorado or New Mexico is required to have the animal checked by a game warden, where a metal 'plug' or 'seal' will be placed in the horn to show the animal was killed legally. The animal can then be sold.
The cooperation between Colorado and New Mexico was important to the investigation, and cooperation between states in major investigations is common, Schaefer said.
"It's difficult for one state," he said. "A lot of time it's more efficient for two to work together." Wildlife violators don't recognize political boundaries.
A computer crime agent from Aurora Police Department is also assisting the DOW in the Estes Park investigation.