Pennsylvania strengthened penalties for illegal hunting last year, hoping to shed its reputation as the go-to state for poachers.
Four Turner men were charged last month with hunting crimes here in Maine and within the next several weeks will face as many as 150 additional charges in Pennsylvania. The four will be the first group of so-called “party hunters” prosecuted under revised Pennsylvania laws. They could face years of jail time there.
“This particular case is really going to open up some eyes,” said Tim Conway, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Northeast Region. Authorities hope to educate people that whether they are residents or nonresidents, Pennsylvania is cracking down on poachers, he said.
Conway called poaching an “epidemic” in Pennsylvania because “for whatever reasons, there are factions out there who just don’t care. It’s a way of life for them. They will hunt and kill whatever they come across.”
The same factions are operating in Maine.
Poachers drive deer, killing a half-dozen at a time. In one fish-poaching case in Washington County, 62 fish over the limit were taken from a stream in a single day. In an Aroostook County case, poachers shot 37 ruffed grouse over the limit.
That kind of excessive killing changes the natural balance of wildlife, which can alter the local population for years.
Everett H. “Lenny” Leonard, 59, of White Birch Drive in Turner, is facing the most serious crimes among the group charged in Maine. Bailed hours after his arrest on Jan. 24, Leonard has already waived extradition to Pennsylvania.
In Maine, he faces two felony drug-trafficking charges, two counts of criminal trespassing and two counts of unlawfully driving deer. He says the case has been “blown out of proportion.”
The others in this group charged with hunting crimes include Leonard’s son, Everett T. Leonard, Carlton “John” Enos and Jason Clifford, all of Turner (see related story). According to the Warden Service, additional charges are likely in the Maine case, too, including charges of hunting while a license is revoked, hunting turkey in closed season, Sunday hunting, hunting under the influence and guiding without a license.
Clifford has previous convictions for criminal trespassing and operating under the influence. The younger Leonard pleaded guilty last year to four misdemeanor hunting violations in November 2009, including exceeding the bag limit on deer, hunting deer after having killed one, failing to register deer and waste of game. He was sentenced to serve three days in Androscoggin County Jail and fined $1,300.
According to Conway, this group is facing much steeper penalties if convicted in connection with their activities in Pennsylvania, including felony big-game charges that each carry up to three-year prison sentences and $15,000 in fines.
Last month, Pennsylvania convicted a repeat offender under its new poaching penalties, but Conway said the Turner party will be the largest group prosecuted under the new regulations.
Group was infiltrated
The Turner party had rented a trailer at a campground in Bradford County in northeastern Pennsylvania, along the southern New York state border, according to Conway.
From that base, the men are alleged to have violated more than 100 Pennsylvania gaming laws in October and December last year. Conway estimated the number of deer killed illegally is well into the 30s, and much of the meat was packaged for the group’s personal consumption.
This is not, Conway said, a case of poaching deer for re-sale, but poaching solely for the group’s benefit.
The animals were shot during the state’s early muzzle-loader and archery seasons, and also during the two-week rifle season in December.
According to Conway, the group was joined by an undercover Maine warden at the hunting camp during these seasons, which is a typical investigative technique among the nation’s game-control officers.
“Many of our cases that we do crack, particularly big cases, are either from agents that manage to infiltrate these groups of people, or just plain old citizens seeing something amiss,” Conway said. “We get an awful lot of tips.”
The same is true in Maine.
Hot line takes aim at poaching
Operation Game Thief, a nonprofit partner of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife established in 1989 to receive tips and pay rewards, has received 8,000 tips about poaching, resulting in more than 2,500 cases during that time. The agency has paid out more than $70,000 in rewards to anonymous tipsters, who are not required to testify in court.
According to Tim Peabody of OGT, the number of incoming tips has varied from year to year based on how aware the public is of the hot line.
For instance, last year, OGT received 337 calls, resulting in 38 cases. That’s more than double the number received in 2003, when there were 142 calls resulting in 13 cases.
When OGT recognized a lag in numbers, Peabody said, the agency revitalized public awareness and the number of calls and cases climbed.
According to Maine Warden Service Capt. Dan Scott, public awareness of the program has increased in recent years, and tipsters now can report information online instead of making calls.
And, even though OGT offers rewards for tips that lead to convictions, Scott said a vast majority of the people eligible for rewards don’t accept the money. They just “want to see the person apprehended,” Scott said, because Mainers care deeply about protecting the state’s wildlife resources.
“We rely on citizens of the state to come forward with information they have,” Scott said, because, for instance, fishing 50 to 60 fish over the legal limit in a single stream “can basically wipe out that resource as a natural trout stream.”
Law aims to protect resources
In 1880, the Maine Legislature placed the responsibility of enforcing game laws on the Maine Fisheries commissioners because, at the time, “the uncontrolled taking of moose, caribou and deer … had contributed to a serious depletion of big game populations,” according to IF&W’s mission statement.
That was the start of IF&W, and the directive to protect the state’s wildlife — including policing poachers — remains a principle mission of the modern Warden Service.
An estimated 40 percent of the service’s annual budget is spent on hunting, trapping and wildlife-related enforcement, education and training, which is more than the service spends on fishing-related activities, or on enforcement and public safety education for boats and recreational vehicles, such as ATVs and snowmobiles.
“We’re the police of the woods,” District Warden Dave Chabot said. That includes law enforcement, landowner relations and search and rescue work. He is one of the investigators on the Leonard, Enos and Clifford case.
During the winter, Chabot typically leaves his home on snowmobile, patrolling northern Androscoggin County by trail and field.
On Thursday, Chabot parked his truck on Route 106 in Leeds, near the intersection of Alden Road and, by snowshoe, followed deer tracks over the embankment and into the woods.
He said two deer had been struck by cars in that area in recent weeks and he believed a homeowner was feeding the deer, drawing them across the road to the feed.
Following a well-traveled deer trail to a backyard on Alden Road, Chabot asked the woman living in the house whether she had been feeding the deer. She had, she said, but had recently stopped.
Chabot explained to the homeowner that, by feeding the deer, she was encouraging the animals to cross a well-traveled, paved road. She hadn’t realized that was happening, he said, until a neighbor told her that a warden was checking the area for signs of someone feeding a small herd.
Snowshoeing away from the house, Chabot said homeowners are frequently unaware that when they feed deer, they draw the animals from their natural habitat, possibly endangering the deer as they cross roads to reach piles of food. Even though feeding deer off-season is legal, making landowners aware of the consequences can often save an animal’s life.
Chabot finds the work to protect wildlife satisfying, and is frustrated by poachers who violate regulations intended to manage Maine’s wildlife.
“There are guys who take the resource and just don’t care,” he said. “They don’t respect the wildlife. They’re all about taking, taking, taking.”
It’s a tough task to identify and investigate poachers, Chabot said, with fewer wardens in the service to monitor activities in the woods and waterways, and more efficient tools available to poachers who are determined to violate the law.
Fewer wardens, more technology
According to Scott, 120 game wardens were working in Maine in the 1950s. Today, 96 wardens cover 17 million acres of public and private land.
The chance of a warden witnessing a wildlife crime in progress is remote, which poachers take advantage of.
Poachers also use technology now more than ever, including game cameras to scout deer by streaming live images to home computers and night-vision goggles to hunt after dark.
Another development in favor of poachers is the greater opportunity to hunt and fish in Maine, Scott said, with more people outdoors enjoying a greater variety of gaming seasons.
Twenty to 30 years ago, there was no turkey season in Maine; now there are two seasons — in spring and in fall. The spring turkey season coincides with the spring fishing season, increasing the workload among fewer wardens.
In the 1980s, hunters were entitled to one deer a year. Now, due to the expanded archery season, the deer season starts in September and runs into December for muzzle loaders and, in some regions of Maine, archers can kill as many deer as they’re willing to buy tags for. It’s good for archers, Scott said, and good for controlling the herd, but it offers greater opportunity for someone to violate the law.
And, years ago, all fishing stopped after September. Now, Mainers enjoy year-round fishing, expanding the opportunities for people to fish over the limit in a greater number of places.
And, finally, Scott said, “30 years ago there was no milfoil, no rabies, no ATVs, and snowmobiles were just coming into the picture, so we had more staff then, more personnel and less of a range of duties to deal with.”
A disturbing trend
In the fall of 2010, wardens checked licenses of 36,000 hunters in the field, an effort to patrol when poachers are most active.
The biggest poaching problem is people exceeding the bag limit on deer, Scott said. It’s a “disturbing trend that’s been going on forever.”
For whatever reason, he said, “society thinks, in the fish and wildlife realm, it’s OK to violate a Class D crime.” Very often, these same people wouldn’t dream of lifting a candy bar at a convenience store, but they will assign a single hunter in a family of license-holders to get deer for them all, he said.
Those kinds of hunters, Chabot said, are the opportunistic kind. They are otherwise law-abiding people who see a chance to hunt deer by “borrowing” someone else’s tag, or taking fish over the limit when the fish are biting. “And we deal with these people in the system,” he said.
It’s the other people, the deliberate poachers, who are priority targets for wardens. They include poachers who bag over the limit for the meat and those who shoot animals and walk away.
“Like any other law enforcement,” Scott said, “a small percentage of the users are committing a high percentage of the violations,” which draws a disproportionate number of resources to enforcement. A new twist in poaching cases, he said, is that prescription drugs are playing a bigger part, and very often the violators have histories of violating other state crimes.
Wardens pay particular attention to complaints and tips about commercial hunters whose clients have an expectation — and sometimes a guarantee — of bagging a bear, deer or other animal, and there is pressure to produce that kill.
For guides and bait dealers, “there is more of a temptation to violate the law,” Scott said, “because they’re getting money for their product.”
Such was the case in 2003 when an undercover warden investigated a group of 15 poachers in the Fryeburg-Brownfield-Lovell area, resulting in convictions for every member of that party hunt (see related story).
IF&W can’t put a number on the rate of poaching crimes, Scott said, because it’s so anonymous. “Unless you catch them, you don’t know what’s going on. How many didn’t we catch? I can guarantee it’s a lot more than we do catch.”
Questions first, conversations second
Yes, wardens can be abrupt when approaching a hunter or angler, Chabot said, because they’re patrolling vast regions alone and often approach people who they suspect are committing crimes and are very often armed.
“We have to assess the situation immediately,” he said, for their personal safety, which means pointed questions first, conversation second.
In Turner on Thursday, Chabot approached two men fishing the Androscoggin River off the new Androscoggin Riverlands State Park and asked to see their licenses. One man produced his license immediately, and the other explained that he’d lost his paperwork, but was “one thousand percent sure” he had paid for the license.
Chabot — whose truck cab doubles as his office — checked the state’s online database and found the man was indeed licensed for ice fishing. Chabot continued on patrol.
“My main goal for the day is to protect Maine’s fish and wildlife,” he said. Making sure that people are fishing legally is part of that task.
“I try to make a difference, at least for the wildlife, in my part of the world,” he said, patrolling Greene, Leeds, Wales, Livermore, Livermore Falls and Turner.
During that process, Chabot makes a point to stop and talk with the people he sees on the trails and to get to know property owners.
A tremendous piece of a warden’s daily task is landowner relations, because Maine’s outdoorsmen depend on access to private land and the continued willingness of landowners to allow public use.
Last year, the Warden Service organized the first of what Scott hopes will be an annual landowner-appreciation event. Wardens and volunteers traveled to specific sites to pick up litter and repair trails. They collected 72 tons of trash at 56 sites.
About 90 percent of Maine is privately owned, so the estimated 400,000 license and permit holders who recreate in Maine every year have legal access to only about 1 million acres of public land. The rest is open by the grace of landowners.
“The people of the state of Maine may not know it, but they are totally reliant on private owners,” Scott said. “If that trust gets breached — trash dumped on the land, people driving deer — the owners will post their land.”
That is especially true when people trespass on private property to drive deer or drive ATVs and snowmobiles outside established trails.
Every time an angry landowner posts land, outdoor recreational space in Maine shrinks.
“If people would be considerate of other people,” Chabot said, much of the recreational policing would disappear and wardens could spend more time catching game thieves.
Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.