Game and Fish shining spotlight on poachers

A young whitetail deer photographed at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. Photo by Jorge Encinas/Arizona Sonora News
A young whitetail deer photographed at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. Photo by Jorge Encinas/Arizona Sonora News

Needlessly cruel and financially costly, poachers in Arizona can be destructive to both wildlife and the state as well as difficult to track or capture but public education and cell phone availability has led to an increase in tips.

There are different actions that fall under poaching in Arizona and depend on the weapons used, the hunting season, licensing and tactics. The basic idea of poaching is explained by Mark Hart, the region five public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“In the simplest definition it is taking wildlife without a proper license or a permit, that’s illegal take, you also have to take it in season,” Hart said.

The executive director of Safari Club International’s Arizona chapter, Bobby Boido, commented on the stance of the club and legitimate hunters during a phone interview.

“As a hunting club and a hunter we’re totally against that,” Boido said. “We believe they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“Poaching is stealing,” he said.

One of Arizona’s worst cases of poaching involved two men, Christopher Ball and Christopher Perez, who killed 15 deer as well as other animals over a two-year period from 2013 to 2014 in Redington Pass, Ariz. It was considered an especially cruel case since the two took little meat and left the animals in the desert.

The case became known as “Friday Night Lights” due to the tactics the two men used. Bright lights on their vehicle stunned the animals before they killed them and the incidents often occurred on Fridays. The use of bright lights to stop wildlife is referred to as “spotlighting” or “head lighting” and is a growing problem in Arizona.

“If you get an animal in the headlights of your car it will stop dead, that is a problem in Southeastern Arizona right now,” Hart said. “That’s something our wildlife managers are reporting more incidents of and that can extend to species you don’t really think about being poached.”

An example would be rabbits, which are in season all year but using spotlighting to kill them can result in a case of poaching, Hart said.

Due to the excessive cruelty and number of charges involved in the “Friday Night Lights” case both Ball and Perez were given prison time. Normally, Arizona will fine those convicted of poaching which is a second-class misdemeanor.

According to the Game and Fish Department both Perez and Ball received a 120-day jail sentence and $750 in criminal fines. Perez pled guilty to 16 charges on Aug. 19 and Ball pled guilty to nine charges on Aug. 24.

In addition to state criminal fines, the Game and Fish Department can impose civil penalties for the value of the wildlife taken illegally.

During the 2014 fiscal year, the department conducted 65 license revocation cases related to poaching. It issued 202-years worth of license revocations, time banning hunters from obtaining a license, and issued $100,350 in civil fines, according to Hart.

The money goes into the state’s Wildlife Prevention Fund.

The value of civil fines is based on the minimal value of the animal illegally taken by poachers. For example, a non-trophy whitetail deer carries a minimum value of $1,500 and a trophy whitetail deer has a minimum of $8,000 according to the information provided by Hart.

The Game and Fish Department can also deny a license for a period of time based on the extent of crime, including a lifetime ban. Such a decision that can affect a person’s ability to hunt not only in Arizona but other states as well.

“If you get your license pulled in Arizona, you won’t be able to get a license in other states,” Hart said. “We’re part of a cooperative agreement among the states to ensure that poachers don’t just take their pastime out of state if they’re caught in one state.”   

One of the major obstacles to identifying and prosecuting poachers is the wide expanse of territory the crimes take place in. Without witnesses or game officials present, many of the incidents go unreported or unnoticed.

“They are very hard cases to make, they happen in the wilderness, usually the crime is committed unseen and there’s very little evidence usually that it has happened,” Hart said. “So these are not real public crimes.”

The department has a program that encourages reporting and offers rewards for tips given by the public about incidents of poaching. The “Operation Game Thief” is a 35-year old program that has issued over $310,000 in reward money.

The 24-hour communication center, which handles public reporting to the program, processed “1,192 credible reports” in 2014. In the same year 77 arrests were made and 16 rewards issued totaling $8,475.

The department is investigating a case involving two javelina that were illegally poached in Sierra Vista. One javelina was found with an illegal leg-hold trap on its leg and the other with a shotgun wound to its back. Both had to be euthanized.

While many of the cases go unsolved and an unknown number go unreported, the rise in cell phone availability and public outreach from the Game and Fish Department has resulted in increases of reports.

“Is it a huge problem in Arizona? In my humble opinion, I don’t think so,” Boido said. “Because Game and Fish does a very good job of patrolling and educating hunters in the non-hunting community that poaching is wrong and poaching is stealing.”

The poaching of wildlife remains a serious concern for the Game and Fish Department, especially in cases involving cruelty and waste.

“I mean if you’re just out there shooting anything that’s in your headlights, it’s obviously not for food right,” Hart said. “You’re just out there blazing away because you think it’s fun, well it’s not fun and it’s illegal.”

Jorge Encinas is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jencinas9@email.arizona.edu.

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