Kansas Men Plead Guilty to Multiple Big-Game Violations

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A combination of old-fashioned game warden sleuthing and high-tech surveillance equipment helped wildlife officers track down and prosecute three Kansas men suspected of poaching trophy-size elk in southwest Colorado over several hunting seasons.

David C. Cooper, 47, of Merriam, Kan.; Gary D. Henderson, 44, of Louisburg, Kan.; and Karl I. Sparks, 39, of Shawnee, Kan., are accused of poaching elk near the rugged La Garita Wilderness Area. The three men pleaded guilty to multiple big-game hunting violations on Sept. 24, and will now have to pay fines totaling more than $45,000.

"These guys were engaged in intentional, premeditated poaching, and it happened over a long period of time," said Brian Bechaver, a Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) district wildlife manager who led a three-year investigation into the poaching case.

Bechaver said the men purchased over-the-counter hunting licenses, but later hiked into a remote, limited-license hunting area to take trophy-size bull elk. Investigators suspect the men had been engaging in such activity as far back as 1987.

Mineral County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Hayes confirmed that the poachers appeared in court a day after DOW officers arrested them. Under a plea agreement, each man must pay fines, surcharges and court costs totaling more than $15,000 apiece. They must also relinquish any trophy animals they may have taken in the past. In addition, DOW officers confiscated their archery equipment, including three top-of-the-line Matthews Solocam bows.

All three men pleaded guilty to several counts against them, including the unlawful take of three or more big-game animals; unlawful take of bull elk without proper and valid hunting licenses in 2003 and 2004; and unlawful use of electronic devices to further a wildlife crime. Authorities added Samson Law surcharges to their fines because the men poached a 6-point bull elk.

The men could have faced even higher penalties and incarceration based on evidence gathered by investigators. However, because the men were cooperative and pleaded guilty to the charges against them, wildlife investigators decided not to push for jail sentences. Under the terms of a multi-state anti-poaching compact, the men stand to face lifetime suspensions of hunting privileges in Colorado and several other states.

The Kansas men are accused of buying licenses for Game Management Unit (GMU) 68, an unlimited license area, but later hunting in GMU 76, a premier unit to the southwest. The boundary between the units is defined by the Palmer Mesa Divide. According to an arrest report, there has been a history of hunting violations in the region. Even so, the poachers apparently were relying on the site's remoteness to shield their activities, investigators said.

DOW officers arrested the men following a six-day surveillance operation in Wason Park, a remote region in the La Garita Wilderness Area. Investigators said the poachers went through a lot of trouble to avoid detection by "cold camping" in thick timber without a fire, covering their campsite with camouflage tarps, using a spotter to watch for other hunters and wildlife officers, and by communicating in code over two-way radios.

Bechaver said the men were adept at making sure they were never seen together during forays into the backcountry. He said it took investigators several years to crack the case because the poachers were careful to hide all evidence of their elk kills. The poachers boned out their meat and carefully hid the rest of the animal carcasses, later carrying out their archery gear, hunting equipment, illegal elk meat and antlers in backpacks.

To ensure they had enough evidence, Bechaver and other investigators, including fellow San Luis Valley wildlife officers Rod Ruybalid and Brent Woodward, camped undercover in freezing rain and carefully followed the poachers' activities through the fall of 2004.

The wildlife officers employed high-tech surveillance techniques and equipment to follow the poachers, including radio scanners, digital voice recorders and cameras, hidden video cameras equipped with infrared trips, and global positioning system (GPS) handhelds. Investigators also relied on DNA evidence to analyze kill sites, and tapped into the computerized Colorado Outdoor Recreation Information System (CORIS) to obtain information about the hunting party.

"This case was solved through a combination of old-time game warden woodsmen skills combined with the use of modern technology," Bechaver said. "The high-tech stuff was good and it came in handy, but we couldn't just do it with that. We had to be on the ground in the backcountry following these guys around in the woods.

"And we do go out into the woods," he added. “We're not just driving around in our trucks drinking coffee and whistling cowboy songs."

To track illegal hunting activities and prosecute suspected poachers, the DOW sponsors two well-known programs. Operation Game Thief, or OGT, offers tipsters cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of illegal hunting activities around Colorado. The other, Turn in Poachers, or TIP, offers non-cash incentives, including premier big-game hunting licenses.