On the Trail Of Illegal Turkey Hunters
By Sergeant S.J. Antolini and Sergeant M.A. Sylvester
A turkey hunter's dream of a spring morning begins, a clear sky slowly begins to lighten and a cardinal sings his first song. Soon after, the raucous gobbling of eastern wild turkeys is heard, near and far away. Two men sit and listen but make no sound. They are dressed in camouflage and wait in a rather elaborate blind, fashioned from logs and brush found in the woods around them. Before the forest is fully lit, the men hear several turkeys approaching, hens making their plaintive calls and gobblers answering every time. Heartbeats and eyebrows rise as the men catch the first glimpse of a small flock of turkeys entering the glade before them. Many seasoned turkey hunters will tell you this may be the most exciting part of it all, that initial sight of a wild turkey coming toward you in the dim lit hours of a spring morning.
As the turkeys move into the area of the blind, however, it soon becomes apparent that something is wrong, very wrong. The hens almost immediately begin to feed as they scratch at the already bare ground and the gobblers are not far behind. The turkeys, unfortunately, are not feeding on acorns, beechnuts or any other natural forage. Cracked corn is scattered in liberal amounts in front of the blind, and had been for at least a month before the season began. Now it is a simple matter for the two men to raise their shotguns and fire when they are ready. The turkeys are unaware of the danger until it is too late. The two men begin firing at two large gobblers, but nearby hens are also hit.
Anyone who hunts knows that spring turkey hunting has exploded in popularity in the past several years. Unfortunately, the popularity of taking this great game bird by unscrupulous and illegal methods has also been on the rise. Hunting turkeys over bait is illegal and most turkey hunters think it is downright unethical.
Law Enforcement's Role In Combating Illegal Turkey Hunting Methods :
By 1992, enough information had been obtained by West Virginia conservation officers to indicate that the illegal methods being used to hunt and kill turkeys was a common practice and a much more serious problem than officers previously thought. As a result of this information, conservation officers in the southernmost counties of West Virginia began to develop and refine several methods and techniques to combat this ever increasing problem. At first these techniques varied from officer to officer, but over the years, through trial and error, officers have developed these techniques into a standard operating procedure.
Information is obtained from several different sources. One is the sporting public and landowners. Many true, ethical sportsmen and women become angry and agitated when they learn that other people are using illegal methods to hunt and kill turkeys. A prime source of information is the conservation officer. Each officer's personal knowledge of his or her assigned area, communication with landowners and sportsmen and women, and personal knowledge of common violators are all taken into consideration when attempting to locate illegal bait sites.
Conservation officers are able to obtain a vast amount of information by simply looking through the game check tags at the game checking stations. From check tags an officer can learn where the majority of turkeys are being killed, the most common time when turkeys are killed, the number being killed, and the names and addresses of people killing turkeys. Officers can log and gather information on many suspected sites during the course of their regular patrol in their assigned area. When officers see an area where they suspect illegal activity, they can compile and use this and other information to further investigate the possibility of the activity at the proper time.
Many observations have been made by conservation officers while flying in National Guard aircraft during marijuana eradication efforts. These observations can later be combined with the other information obtained to greatly improve the officer's ability to successfully determine if an illegal activity is taking place.
After sufficient information is obtained, conservation officers prioritize and document this information. They then conduct foot patrols to locate and verify illegal bait sites. Pre-scouting and patrolling suspected areas is a difficult, time-consuming task. Many times an officer will walk several miles through difficult terrain and spend days, weeks or even months attempting to locate these illegal sites. While conducting the foot patrols, an officer must find a way into the area to enable him to enter and exit undetected. An officer must take several precautions not to leave any foot prints, broken branches, mashed weeds or any other signs in the area to alert the suspects that someone other than themselves has been in the area. Suspects may take various measures to set up some indicator to alert them if anyone has been in the area, such as placing branches or brush in pathways, or setting up trip wires across paths. Some may even go as far as setting up booby traps for unwanted intruders around their sites.
Once officers have located an illegal site, they gather evidence, take photographs and plot the site on a topographic map. In some cases Global Positioning System coordinates are entered and documented. During this initial scouting and locating of illegal bait sites, officers must look at the entire site and determine where the turkeys may enter, where the suspect will more than likely be watching closely and, more importantly, the direction in which the suspect will be shooting. All of this can usually be determined by the construction of the blind, where the bait is placed and obvious signs left by the turkeys that have been feeding on the bait. This is the time when officers must determine the safest route to approach the site, where to set up to observe the suspects' actions and how to proceed once the violation has been observed.
Due to the lack of sufficient manpower and equipment, conservation officers are forced to search for as many resources as they can to complete the task of apprehending suspects conducting illegal activities. Many times conservation officers are pulled in from other counties, or manpower and equipment is gained by asking for assistance from other law enforcement agencies such as the State Police, county sheriff's departments, National Park Service or city police departments. Depending on the number of sites, the number of suspects believed to be at each site, and availability of manpower, officers are assigned to teams of no less than two officers per site.
Many hours must be spent in planning and organizing this type of operation to ensure the operation will be successful and more importantly, to ensure the absolute safety of all officers involved. This is more than likely one of the most dangerous and life-threatening situations conservation officers will encounter while performing their duties. Many concerns regarding safety must be addressed when performing this type of operation. Number one, the subjects involved willingly and wantonly violate the law. As with many game-related violations, subjects will do almost anything to avoid being caught including attempting to harm or kill any officer who attempts to apprehend them. Also, the inherent dangers that are associated with the sport of turkey hunting such as concealment of the hunter play a major role in safely completing the operation. Most all subjects will construct some type of camouflaged blind to conceal themselves from the turkeys they are hunting. They will, in most cases, be dressed entirely in camouflaged clothing including face masks or face paint. Not only does this make it more difficult for the turkeys to see them, but it makes it extremely difficult for the officers to locate and observe their actions.
An officer must be totally aware of the surrounding area and be very observant to any type of movement of the suspects to ensure his and the other officers safety. This involves cunning, prowess, alertness and common sense on the part of all officers involved in the operation. Once all safety issues are addressed and all officers are clear on their particular assignments, the illegal sites are approached through the predetermined routes and the officers set up and begin surveillance of the area. Depending on the information that has been obtained, this is usually done under the cover of darkness, hours before the subjects are believed to be coming into the site. In order for the operation to be successful, the officers must be completely camouflaged and out of sight of not only the suspects, but also the turkeys which may be coming into the site.
Normally the suspects are allowed to kill or take an illegal turkey before the officers announce themselves and take the suspect into custody. Once a violation has taken place and been observed by the officers at the site, they begin the task of controlling the situation and apprehending the suspects. When the officers begin the final phase of the operation and decide to take the suspect down, extreme safety must be exercised. If at any time the team leader or any other officer at the site sees or observes something that he or she believes may compromise the safety of any of the officers involved, he or she has the responsibility to let every officer know; and if necessary back away from the site until such time the safety concerns can be dealt with.
Complete and efficient communication between officers is a must. Once the decision has been made to proceed with the arrest, officers must use every bit of cover available to them to approach the suspects as carefully and quietly as possible. Once the officers are close enough to the suspect that he or she can hear the officer's commands, the team leader must identify himself as a conservation officer and advise the suspect or suspects of the action the officers want them to take. One of the most important steps at this time is to separate the suspects from their weapons. This can be done either by simply allowing the suspects to exit their blind and walk away toward the animals they may have shot before announcing the officer's presence or by giving the suspects verbal commands.
Once the officers at the site have the suspects and the situation under control, they can begin to process the crime scene. At that time the officers will collect all evidence linked with the violation including firearms, ammunition, fired shell casings, calls, any animals killed, and vehicles or ATVs if used in the violation. In addition, they take photographs of all evidence and document where each piece of evidence was located. At that point the officers can make the decision to either take the suspects forthwith or simply issue them citations charging them with the violations that occurred. In some cases, a follow-up investigation may be necessary.
Over recent years, the hard work and dedication of West Virginia conservation officers have resulted in the arrest and conviction of many people for baiting and killing turkeys over bait. This is just one of the many problems a conservation officer is faced with on a yearly basis. With the help of the sportsmen and women of this state, conservation officers will be able to effectively combat this and other violations of your game and fish laws in the future.
Both Sgt. Antolini and Sgt. Sylvester work for the DNR Law Enforcement Section and are stationed in Mercer County.