5:30 a.m. A truck makes its way down the winding dirt road in the Medicine Bow area of Wyoming. A deer is illuminated in the bright headlights. A man steps out, fires a single shot and drops the deer. As he begins harvesting the illegally taken deer, a landowner down the road begins his curious approach. Knowing what he’s done, the man fleas leaving the animal to waste with only the head removed. A story like this is not uncommon or unheard of across the United States.
The term poaching often brings to mind elephant tusks in Africa and shark fins in Japan. In Wyoming, poaching is just as big of a problem and can be devastating to wildlife and ecological resources.
This story is not unique. This story is not simple. Cases like this are dealt with by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish each and every day.
“So normally like 2018, I had over 100 what I would call a case,” said Bill Brinegar, a game warden in South Laramie. “Some cases have 15 or 20 pieces of paper like warnings and citations, but it’s all one case.”
Brinegar has been with the Wyoming Game and Fish for 15 years and says he has a true passion for wildlife conservation and management. Born in California, Brinegar came to Wyoming at a young age with his father who was in the Air Force. When he turned 19, he left for a brief stint, and came back to the state to pursue his passion.
With three game wardens in the Laramie area, those 100 cases might only equal one third of the total workload of the department. Game wardens say that their high workload in mitigating the effects of poaching puts them under a tremendous amount of stress. Those effects are wide-reaching and extremely hard to control.
“[It’s] a huge hit in the management and what they do to account for the management of those herds, and how to issue licenses,” said Brandon Specht, owner of the West Laramie Fly Store.
Management of animal populations is something that can be very difficult to do when poaching is a factor. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department only issues a certain number of hunting licenses for different species in a given year.
“Flying in helicopters, counting deer and elk” said Brinegar when discussing parts of his day-to-day job. The number of licenses that are distributed determined by wildlife agencies who count herd sizes using helicopters, as well as acquiring reports from locals about population size and stability. The number of animals the Game and Fish likes to see is known as a healthy population.
“A healthy population is around half of the ecosystems maximum capacity for a given species” said Jason Sherwood, the Regional Access Coordinator and Senior Game Warden for Wyoming Game and Fish.
Hunting licenses issued help keep that number healthy and consistent. The problem starts when those animals are taken out of season, without a license, thus affecting the healthy population size that Game Wardens come up with.
Going into any given hunting shop or walking around any given town in the state of Wyoming, it’s not uncommon to see some form of advert or Public Service Announcements with the mantra, “Stop Poaching”, followed by a hotline direct to the Game and Fish department to report suspicious acts or suspected poaching incidents.
Some are asking, is poaching a big enough problem in the state to warrant the number of PSAs and adverts plastered all over every hunting shop?
“Yes, it is. I don’t know that the amount of it that’s done may be correlated to that. But the effect that even a minimal amount of it has is worth the amount of effort they put into it,” said Specht.
Specht works with the Game and Fish on certain cases of poaching. When the game warden comes in inquiring about suspects, Specht answers questions about licensing to determine how truthful that suspect is being with the game warden.
As is the case with most things, the “rather be over prepared and not need it than under prepared and regret it” mantra seemingly is a common theme from these PSAs. If it helps solve one case, give one clue, or stop one poacher, the Game and Fish believes that the PSAs have done their job.
Within the realm of wildlife violations, poaching has many different layers. Whether it be the person looking for the biggest trophy and shooting outside of the tag limit, or the person attempting to feed themselves from lack of a better option, both of the cases fall under the definition of wildlife violations. In that definition, there are, yet again, more layers.
“If someone went out, without a license, and they shot [a] deer, its generally referred to as our winter range statute because in its inception, it was designed to target those guys that were going out on the winter range when the mule deer were rutting and they would poach a big deer.” said Brinegar.
This type of offense is the most severe poaching offense under the purview of the Game and Fish – so severe that three separate convictions of this violation can result in a felony.
“We have that level, all the way down to, let’s say you shot a little fork and horn without a license and you’re trying to feed your family, then that would just be ‘take without a license’.” said Brinegar.
Within the variety of severity, there is even more variety in the way each case is handled. Some cases are cut and dry, with a witness, a license plate number, and hard evidence. Other cases are much more involved. Sometimes, all the Game and Fish have to work with is small breadcrumbs that may point them in the right direction.
“There’s a bull elk that’s dead next to the road, it’s clearly been shot, and it’s really close to where, days prior, I just worked a poaching investigation where a guy shot two elk. So, on first sight, it’s like ‘Oh this must be part of that, we just didn’t find it the first day.’ But [I] dig through the elk, I find a bullet, completely different bullet, the guy was alone, so he didn’t have two rifles.” said Brinegar, in reference to a case he worked a year ago.
This particular case ended up being related to a completely different perpetrator than the previous case even though all clues pointed to the former investigation. The department could have easily stuck him with a third illegally taken elk charge. However, after much investigation and getting their hands dirty, the wardens discovered a hunter legally shot the elk, didn’t see where it ran to after getting shot, and then it happened to die next to the road, near the scene of the other investigation. This is known as a cripple loss, which while unfortunate, is not considered poaching.
In late October 2019, a man was sentenced to nine years in prison in Sheridan County, Wyoming after 113 carcasses of whitetail deer were found throughout his property. Along with the $110,000 fine, he must also repay $144,000 in restitution costs. 113 whitetail deer are an amount that can affect the healthy population of a herd for not only this generation, but for future generations of that species, according to the Sheridan Press.
These are particularly the cases that the Game and Fish fight to solve and bring to justice. The main focus of a warden is to manage the wildlife. When a person illegally takes 113 deer over a 20-year period, it makes the job of a warden that much more difficult.
“When someone poaches, they are not just killing that single animal, they are stealing the opportunity for others to enjoy and use that resource.” said Sherwood.
The number of licenses sold each year directly correlates to the health of a species population, if that number is not regulated, then everyone suffers because of it. The wardens have more casework, the hunters in the state have less opportunity to hunt, and the species suffers.
Hunting, fishing and anything outdoors for Wyomingites is and always has been a way of life.
“I’ve been fishing as long as I can remember and I’ve been hunting ever since I’ve been of legal age. It’s what my household grew up with,” said Four Seasons Anglers employee, Josh McPeak.
The reach of a Wyoming game warden is wide. Sometimes, they’re neighbors with their personal phone numbers listed online for public access. The closeness of a community engrossed in hunting culture, connected so deeply with those who protect that culture is nothing short of astonishing.
“I have never witnessed poaching personally; however, I’ve heard of certain incidences occurring. My old neighbor was a game warden, and he would tell us about certain poaching incidences occurring,” said University of Wyoming student, Taurey Carr.
A game warden is not simply there to catch the bad guy. A game warden is there to be involved with the community and protect resources that run so deeply within the roots of that community.
The problem of poaching in Wyoming, as small as it may seem with not a lot of news coverage, is still a problem that residents and game wardens alike must deal with. There can be many negative effects on ecosystems, different species, and the environment even with one illegally taken animal. The Game and Fish Department goes to great lengths in order to allow for sustainable hunting practices. Without this amount of involvement, there wouldn’t be a game resource for people of this state to enjoy.