Jenna Fischer’s lungs were already burdened by the exertion of climbing 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, but when she glimpsed a mountain goat on a ridge just above treeline, she pushed herself to hike faster. Fischer’s friend had told her that she’d spotted some goats during a hike on Quandary the previous week, and, hoping to capture a few photos, the Colorado State University student carried a telephoto lens for long-distance shooting. She didn’t really need it: Fischer caught up with the shaggy white goat and was delighted to find another one just up the road. Both were lounging just 30 feet off the trail. She spent 10 minutes taking snaps before continuing on her hike. That was at 8:30 a.m. on July 3.
About a week later, Fischer learned that just hours after she’d descended, a different kind of shooting spree had taken place on Quandary: Two mountain goats had been shot in the head at close range. They were almost certainly the same pair she had photographed earlier that day. “It’s a tragedy that these beautiful creatures were killed for no apparent reason and just left there,” Fischer says. No meat or trophies had been removed from the typically agreeable creatures on Quandary Peak, leading game wardens to conclude it was a thrill killing.
“We’ve never had reports of aggressive goats on Quandary,” says Tom Davies, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “If it was self-defense, someone would’ve called to tell us about it,” he continues. “So let’s be very clear: This was not a hunter. I’m a hunter, and this is wretched to me, an unthinkable act against wildlife. This was a poacher.”
Although the term “poaching” conjures scenes of far-flung lands where exotic animals such as elephants and Bengal tigers are always in demand, the practice of illegally killing or capturing wildlife isn’t just the domain of the developing world. It’s also a problem in the United States, and specifically here in Colorado. CPW issues about 3,300 poaching citations each year. Many more instances likely go undetected: By some estimates, poachers claim as many animals in the Centennial State as lawful hunters do.
According to Bob Thompson, CPW’s lead wildlife investigator, this can have devastating effects on the state’s wildlife populations. In southeastern Colorado, for example, box turtle populations have plummeted after poachers began scooping them up to sell to the pet industry. And poachers who use illegal means to target trophy animals can weaken entire herds. “When you take the dominant males out of the population, you leave the inferior males to breed,” Thompson says, “and that impacts the genetics of the herd and affects their vigor.”
Most often, poaching takes place in sparsely populated places, not on busy thoroughfares like the trail up Quandary Peak, which sees 20,000 to 25,000 hikers each year. But in Colorado and nationwide, authorities estimate that poaching numbers are creeping up. And the poachers themselves are becoming savvier than ever.
Ty Petersburg grew up in Rangely, a 2,000-resident Western Slope town that’s dwarfed by 1,000 square miles of surrounding sagebrush and mesas. As a kid, he learned that some folks’ ideas of Friday night fun included getting liquored up and aiming spotlights at the hills, hoping to shoot blinded deer. That was poaching 40 years ago, says Petersburg, who’s now an area wildlife manager for CPW.
These days, his investigations uncover far more sophisticated strategies. Night-vision goggles and thermal-imaging sensors—technologies that were once reserved for military use—have become affordable enough for poachers to use to locate wildlife. Game cameras, which may not be used to geolocate an animal within 48 hours of a licensed hunt, can now relay an animal’s location to a poacher’s phone. Aerial footage taken by drones that have become smaller, cheaper, and easier to use is also on the rise, says CPW district wildlife manager Ian Petkash. “I think we’re going to see drones come into play a lot more,” he adds.
The motivation for using such methods is rarely about putting food on the table, says Thompson, who’s spent the past 38 years pursuing poachers. “Subsistence might’ve been a bigger reason 70 years ago,” he says, “but now there are government programs that help the hungry.” People can even ask CPW to be placed on a list of recipients for meat (usually roadkill or improperly harvested animals) that the agency distributes. In rural communities, it’s fairly common for CPW officers to gift such discards to area families known to have bare cupboards.
Fear, however, can be a strong motivator. Some animals simply fall victim to frightened homeowners, who shoot animals they suspect to be predatory. Homeowners can’t legally kill bears or mountain lions unless they pose a danger to humans, livestock, or motor vehicles. Fortunately, relocation programs solve many of those conflicts.
Greed and ego, Thompson says, are what drive most poachers to sidestep the law. Some want to pin massive antlers to their walls (elk, deer, and bighorn sheep are common targets). Others trap and maim animals—for example, one Grand Junction–area hunting outfitter was injuring mountain lions—to make it easier for clients to track and shoot them. Still others sell wildlife parts to traffickers, who distribute them across the planet.
The market for illegal wildlife is healthy; some estimates put the trade at roughly $34 billion worldwide. Chinese buyers, for example, seek medicinal value from bears’ gall bladders, while the American pet supply industry buys moose, elk, and deer antlers (some of which are acquired by dubious means) to sell to dog owners as chew toys.
Whether they’re taking animals out of season or taking more than the allowable limit or weakening prey before a hunt, many poachers use valid hunting licenses as a smokescreen. But poaching isn’t hunting. CPW develops its regulations—hunters using rifles must wear orange; hunters typically must operate during daylight hours—to keep wildlife populations healthy and to uphold the “fair chase” guidelines promoted by national sportsmen’s organizations dedicated to the ethical treatment of wildlife. State law expects hunters to do everything they can to remove and use the animals they kill: It’s illegal to take a trophy and leave the carcass. Drones, night scopes, and other technologies that would give a hunter an unfair advantage (like the poisoned arrows used by a group of poachers near Collbran in 2013) are also prohibited.
By obtaining a proper license, hunters get permission to attempt to harvest an animal that, by rights, belongs to the people of Colorado. Establishing that common ownership is “one of the things that the United States has done right,” Petkash says. “In Europe, the landowner owns the wildlife. But here, the residents of each state own it, and that’s one of the best tenets of North American wildlife conservation.” According to state law, poaching isn’t just a crime against animals: It’s theft from the people of Colorado.
Coloradans aren’t particularly forgiving when someone takes something that’s not rightfully theirs, especially when it comes to wildlife. In the Centennial State, willful destruction of big game is a class 5 felony punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and three years’ jail time. Poachers can also face lifetime suspensions of their hunting licenses, not just in Colorado but across the country, due to an interstate wildlife violator compact supported by 47 member states.
In addition, Petkash explains, people who are willing to break one law generally seem willing to break others—which is why poaching cases often involve illegal drugs and other illicit activities. Last year, Petkash pursued Park County poachers who shot mule deer and pronghorn with a .338 Whisper, a firearm designed to shoot a heavy bullet very slowly, so it doesn’t break the sound barrier and issue the telltale “crack” of a fired gun. Their criminal histories included manslaughter and drug trafficking charges in Florida, and their Colorado garage contained far more marijuana plants than are allowed by law.
“As the demographics change and Colorado becomes more urbanized, we’re dealing not just with wildlife law but with everything else, too,” Petersburg says. The result is an expansion of duties that’s putting a strain on the 275 field-based members of CPW’s law enforcement team, whose ranks haven’t grown since 2001 and whose officers patrol territories that average 765 square miles apiece.
As such, game wardens are increasingly relying on the public to stop poachers. CPW’s primary weapon is Operation Game Thief, which launched in 1981. It offers concerned citizens a way to report suspicious activity (call 1-877-COLO-OGT or email firstname.lastname@example.org). Because it’s an independent nonprofit—rather than a government agency, as CPW is—informants can remain anonymous. Operation Game Thief “has been a huge help, because we have so few officers in the state,” Thompson says. “They can’t be everywhere, so we rely on citizens to be our eyes and ears. It’s their wildlife.” Over the past five years alone, Operation Game Thief has averaged 654 annual tips, leading to 35 citations per year.
The citizenry, it appears, is just as vigilant about monitoring social media sites for braggarts who appear to have taken their trophies illegally. “We get a lot of cases due to Facebook,” says Petersburg, who adds that poachers who target the biggest specimens can’t always resist the urge to post photos on public forums. That’s when someone spots some evidence of wrongdoing and reports it to CPW.
Game wardens also make use of DNA analysis of blood, fur, and other animal evidence to build cases against poachers. CPW doesn’t maintain its own forensics lab, but the Wyoming Game and Fish Department does, and it obligingly analyzes samples that Colorado officials collect from vehicles, kill sites, and coolers where thieves may have stashed their hauls.
Most poaching cases, however, start with old-school sleuthing. Petkash uses his tracking skills (developed over a lifetime of hunting big game and waterfowl) to deduce poachers’ movements and locations. Sometimes, he simply stages a stakeout. When he got a tip from a South Platte River angler who saw someone throwing what looked like a net into the back of his truck one night, Petkash started parking at the reported location and spent hours staring into the dark.
Gill nets can entangle as many as 80 trout in one haul, and Petkash worried that multiple visits from such an offender could have a major impact on this popular trout stream. So he planned stakeouts, sometimes keeping watch in the morning or lingering late into the night in an attempt to ambush the suspected fish bandit. In a span of 12 nights, Petkash actually caught two alleged poachers, one of whom ratted out the other.
It may seem like a lot of effort to save a sack of fish. But, says Petkash, “wildlife doesn’t have a voice. We’re the folks who need to act on their behalf.” The odds, however, remain in poachers’ favor—there’s just too much country and too few enforcers to catch every miscreant.
Even on heavily trafficked Quandary Peak, the goats’ killer remains unidentified (as of press time), despite the $15,000 reward for incriminating information posted by Operation Game Thief. But occasionally, Petkash says, he just gets lucky—and that’s when he suspects divine intervention. “God loves game wardens,” he says. “Sometimes he throws us a bone.”