By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Hunting plays an important role in wildlife management, especially since the populations of such predators as bears and wolves have been diminished or eradicated. Hunters are not game thieves or boors by definition. Most probably are not. But the extent of poaching, thievery and firearm stupidity is impossible to assess.
When someone robs a Circle K, it's captured on video. "With people problems and burglary, you've got victims who call in and the police get a nice set of statistics," says game ranger Ray Kohls. "Well, you know the animals can't talk, so we really don't know. We do find carcasses out there," the remains of the animal after the meat and trophies are taken.
The violator may be overzealously trying to fill his deer or elk tags--or hunting with someone else's. Often it's a question of ego, as in those big-game hunters looking to complete their grand-slam collection of wild sheep trophies who are driven to poach desert bighorn sheep. Commercial poachers traffic in exotic pelts of endangered jaguars or even in animal body parts. Bear paw soup is an Oriental delicacy; bear gallbladder and deer antlers are illegally harvested to be shipped to the Orient and made into Oriental folk medicines.
Rural communities have their own subcultures of gleaners looking to tweak the system, whether they're poaching wood or poaching animals. Game and Fish agents regularly watch freelance woodcutters because their firewood loads can conceal poached deer or elk.
"You shoot an elk, you've got a problem," says Rob Young, the Operation Game Thief manager for the Game and Fish Department. "You're going to need some work to conceal it. You've got to whack it up. You're going to need a big vehicle."
Turkeys, on the other hand, are small and convenient. "The perfect poaching animal," says Ron Thompson, a Game and Fish law enforcement specialist in Pinetop. "They don't smell. They don't leave a lot of blood. They fit behind the truck seat. You don't have to sit there and skin them. You just pick em up and put em in the back of your truck and you're gone. There's no sign whatsoever."
Most infractions, however, are just plain boneheaded: the 85-year-old man who shot an Amtrak train while he was aiming at a covey of doves, the yahoo who shoots an owl because it's there and he's got a shotgun.
Just as every third Arizona male thinks he's a cowboy, so he thinks he's a hunter. To wit: On October 7, Arizona Republic columnist William P. Cheshire invoked Thoreau in a folksy column that detailed his first sighting of the bushy-eared Aberts' squirrel, "two of which I brought down with a .22 and took to Bob's wife for Brunswick stew," he wrote in the style of Teddy Roosevelt. In a follow-up column, Cheshire sheepishly admitted he'd been cited by the Game and Fish Department. Squirrel season didn't open until October 8.
@body:The Arizona Game and Fish Department started its decoy operations in 1987 out of its Flagstaff office. A game ranger named Dave Bancroft invested $200 on a full mount of a deer, placed a small, four-point rack of antlers on its head. If they had placed a larger rack on the decoy, it might have been too inviting when they set it by the side of the road.
Nineteen cars drove past over the next ten hours, and ten of them stopped. Of those ten, three studied the beast through gun scopes and decided it was too small, and the other seven fired on it. Only one of those hunters did so legally; the others shot from the road, from their vehicles or from the seats of their four-wheeler ATVs.
Subsequent deer and elk decoy operations later that same season turned up the same troubling rates of noncompliance. And since the citations the department wrote earned a 98 percent conviction rate, decoys became a regular institution.
So did the noncompliance rates. Ron Thompson ran a turkey decoy operation out of AGF's Pinetop-Lakeside regional office last fall. Of 24 drivers who stopped to look at the decoy, 12 shot at it illegally. Others took photographs or honked their horns to try to scare it off. One watched the bogus bird for several minutes, then drove a few yards down the road and shot a squirrel out of a tree through his car window. When AGF agents stopped him and cited him, the hunter just asked, "Did you see the turkey down the road?"
"It's somewhat disturbing to see the violation rates for turkeys," Thompson notes. "We have a declining turkey population in Arizona, and we're doing hundreds of thousands of dollars' research to find out why, when the reality may be a poaching problem."
However, several state game rangers complain that it's impossible to do a definitive compliance study for turkeys because there's no way to make a turkey decoy last long enough to collect any definitive numbers. After three or four direct hits, there's not much left.
Each regional office of Arizona Game and Fish has a menagerie of decoys: javelina and turkey, deer and elk. Some of them are no more than green or untanned hides stretched over a wooden frame--plywood venison. "We just wet em down real good and stretch em over the form," says Ray Kohls, a game ranger in the Game and Fish office in Mesa. "They stink real good until they dry." Rob Young recalls one such decoy, a deer skin stapled over a plywood form. A bow hunter placed an arrow right on the seam on its chest, popped the staples and watched the skin peel off his quarry right before his eyes.