Be a Sportsman: Report a Poacher

Reporting a poacher, or just evidence of one, benefits wildlife and hunting itself

ON THE LAST ****day of last year's duck season, Luke Jones (not his real name) and a friend were sneaking along the final stretch of a North Carolina float hunt when he saw what he thought was a dead wild turkey crumpled on the icy riverbank. He and his buddy paddled over. Wet blood glistened on white head feathers. The bird's broad wings were still limp. But it was no gobbler. Someone had recently gunned down a bald eagle.

Infuriated, the two hunters dialed North Carolina's toll-free hotline for reporting wildlife violations. “We knew we had very little to offer,” Jones says. “Just a dead bird. No witnesses. No clues. But it's a privilege to be out there, hunting and fishing, and this is the kind of thing that really upsets me.”

What the hunters had turned out to be just enough. Officers of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission investigated the incident and ultimately found the shooter. Just a few weeks before this issue went to press, he was found guilty.

Thankfully, nearly every state offers some sort of citizen reporting program for wildlife violations. (For a list, check out the International Association of Natural Resources Crimestoppers website at ianrc.org.) And many states are working to make it even easier for citizens to report game hogs.

Consider Pennsylvania. Up until last year, its Turn In a Poacher line was reserved for violations that involved multiple big-game animals or endangered or threatened species. Now, any wildlife violation can be called in, and an online form was added to the Pennsylvania Game Commission's website to make reporting even easier. Citizens can send in descriptions of vehicles, suspects, and guns used, plus license plate numbers, addresses, and other details to help law enforcement officers jump-start an investigation.

“A license plate number is one of the best pieces of information you can gather.”

The high-tech approach has paid off. Since November, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has received more than 180 online form submissions and phone calls. “The unlawful taking of wildlife should be treated as a serious crime'because it is a serious crime,” says John Denchak, chief of the PGC's Enforcement Division. Here's how to deputize yourself:

Don't talk yourself out of taking action. “For 30 years I've heard people worry about having their cars shot up and their barns burned,” says Denchak, “and I've never heard of a single case where a witness was harassed. This is an unfounded fear.”

Keep contact numbers handy. Most states widely publicize their violation-reporting phone numbers. Keep the number at hand'program it into your cellphone, jot it down in the margin of your hunting license, keep it in your glove box. Having this information close at hand removes one more obstacle standing in the way of your doing the right thing.

Maintain your cool'and distance. Instead of confronting the game hog, assume the role of a P.I. “Passively gather as much information as possible,” says Denchak. Jot down a complete description of the individual. Where was the truck parked? Where was the shooter standing when the shots were fired? What kind of gun was used? A vehicle license plate number is one of the best pieces of evidence you can gather. “That gives officers a person and a place,” says Denchak, “and we can start an investigation from just that.” And don't forget your digital or cellphone camera. Photos of a violator's vehicle or license tag carry serious weight.

Many hunters witness a friend or a family member shoot more than a limit of doves or stuff an undersize trout under the cooler seat. Could you really squeal on your own flesh and blood?

Denchak's advice is to have an honest discussion with the violator. Say that you'll not turn a blind eye to the unlawful taking of wildlife. Warn him that you're giving him a chance to straighten up, and that you'll not hesitate to turn him in if necessary. “Ask yourself: Would you tolerate his stealing from a supermarket?” Denchak says.

In this regard, Denchak holds himself to pretty high standards: He's arrested two of his own cousins.

Never assume it's not worthwhile. “The reporting officer told me that he wished more people wouldn't assume that they were too late, or didn't have enough information,” Jones says. Every criminal investigation has to have a starting point, but there won't be one if you don't make the call.