Recently, game wardens with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wrapped up an important case that proves illegal hunting activity just isn't worth the cost.
In the landmark case - completed in October 2013 - a total of 73 wildlife violation charges were filed against 13 individuals who pleaded guilty in both Oklahoma and Arkansas courts, mostly for crimes involving the illegal killing of deer and obtaining fraudulent hunting licenses. They paid a total of $22,356 in state fines and court costs with no restitution, including over $10,306 paid for 18 charges filed in Oklahoma and $12,050 for 55 charges filed in Arkansas. In both states combined, only two charges were dismissed. Those charged were members of private hunting leases in southeast Oklahoma and adjoining leases in Arkansas.
The case began in June 2012, when McCurtain Co. game warden Kenny Lawson was contacted by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent regarding an illegal lifetime license purchase and information that several private hunting lease members were involved in killing deer illegally in Oklahoma and transporting them into Arkansas.
Lawson followed up on the lifetime license information and learned that a resident of De Queen, Ark., had in fact used a relative's Oklahoma address to obtain an Oklahoma driver's license and lifetime hunting license. Then Lawson teamed up in mid-October 2012 with two USFWS employees to begin surveillance on the associated leases along the Oklahoma/Arkansas state line near Eagletown.
In all, law enforcement officers, including primary investigator and McCurtain Co. game warden Kenny Lawson, documented 45 illegal deer (29 bucks and 16 does) and one bear illegally killed by the group in 2012 - not including deer checked in Arkansas. All the deer killed in Oklahoma were determined to be illegally taken, as no person in the group had a valid Oklahoma hunting license or deer license - including the Oklahoma resident who killed two bucks. One of the suspects killed 13 deer in 2012, seven of which were killed illegally in Oklahoma. One of the suspects also aided a younger brother in illegally obtaining an Oklahoma lifetime hunting license by using his Oklahoma address. The primary poaching method observed by the officers included using dogs to run deer between the two leases, a technique legal in Arkansas but illegal in Oklahoma and most other states.
Through their covert investigations, officers identified suspects and 15 vehicles used in crimes. They also observed illegal hunting with rifles every day from mid-October throughout the nine-day Oklahoma muzzleloader season and the archery season as well as throughout the 16-day Oklahoma deer gun season. The officers then spent several months gathering other information and building a case. By August of 2013, the officers were able to interview the suspects. Lawson and fellow McCurtain Co. game warden Dru Polk undertook the interview process along with members of a special investigative unit with Arkansas Game and Fish Department and special agents with the USFWS.
Eventually all suspects were located and were very cooperative, confessing to the crimes and giving written affidavits to the facts.
The officers also interviewed the original suspect on the fraudulent lifetime license case and learned the father of this suspect had also obtained an Oklahoma lifetime license at the same time. Both father and son were charged with additional hunting violations in both states for killing deer illegally and the license fraud.
The officers confiscated approx. 30 sets of deer antlers and three illegally obtained Oklahoma lifetime hunting and fishing licenses with a face value of $2,175 combined and an estimated several thousand dollars in value over the course of a lifetime.
According to Lt. Arthur Joe Young, game warden supervisor stationed in Atoka County, this was the largest case of its kind that he could recall in District 3 in his 40 years as a game warden. Lawson credits the success of the case to good old fashioned investigative work and the interview skills of the team of officers, as well as the fact that the involved officers worked covertly to build the case before taking action.
"The evidence in this case was significant and would have been difficult for the suspects to dispute," Lawson said. "While modern technology proved to be a very valuable tool in this investigation, it cannot replace or serve as a substitute for fundamental investigative work and a desire to see that justice is served to those that steal from law abiding sportsmen and women."
While the suspects paid a monetary price for their crimes thanks to the efforts of Oklahoma game wardens, the real winners in the case are the sportsmen of Oklahoma, whose hunting license dollars go toward conservation work, including law enforcement efforts to protect wildlife.
"Our true sportsmen pay for conservation, whether it be law enforcement efforts or habitat work," Lawson said. "When you hunt illegally, you are taking from the people who pay for conservation and also hurting wildlife."
The Wildlife Department receives no general state tax appropriations and is funded primarily by sportsmen through their purchase of hunting and fishing licenses as well as certain sporting goods.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Law Enforcement Division is made up of about 120 game wardens stationed across the state with a commitment to make sure that wildlife is protected and conserved for the enjoyment of legal hunters, wildlife watchers and future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. Game wardens are available to assist sportsmen who have witnessed a wildlife violation. Their numbers are printed in the current "Oklahoma Hunting Guide," available free online atwildlifedepartment.com or in print anywhere hunting licenses are sold.
Wildlife violations also can be reported by phone - anonymously - by calling the Department's Operation Game Thief Hotline at 1-800-522-8039.