Searching for poachers, wildlife officers crack down on illegal hunting

FLORENCE, Arizona – Officer Laura Orscheln sets up her binoculars and tripod and stands on a ridge overlooking the quiet desert near Florence, a rural desert community an hour south of Phoenix. Scanning the desert for any movement, the Arizona Game & Fish Department wildlife manager spots something dark moving about a mile away.

Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager Officer Laura Orscheln looks for animals and hunters. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

It’s just trash, so she sweeps her binoculars elsewhere. She’s “glassing” – a practice hunters use to identify game from a distance.

But Orscheln isn’t just looking for animals, she’s also looking for hunters. She keeps her eyes peeled and listens for gunshots.

Nearly 100 wildlife managers travel across Arizona to monitor hunts, check tags and licenses and study animal populations. They focus much of their time on protecting wildlife and trying to stop poaching – a duty they say is critical to maintaining healthy populations and ensure the survival of species across Arizona.

Poaching is a widespread problem around the world. According to the Humane Society of the United States, legal hunters kill tens of millions of animals every year. But for each animal killed legally, another is killed illegally, it says.

Experts estimate that less than 5 percent of poachers in the U.S. are caught, the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust reports.

In 2017, Arizona Game & Fish issued 76 citations for the illegal taking of big game, fishing violations and the unlawful killing of raptors. The department collected $74,500 in fines.

On this day, a javelina hunt, licensed and organized by Game & Fish, is under way. It’s one of the many big game hunts throughout the year. As a wildlife manager, it’s part of Orscheln’s job to keep track of what’s happening in this expanse of desert.

Javelinas resemble wild boars but are members of the collared peccary family. Some people eat them by cooking them like pork. Hunters in Arizona can kill two a year, with a permit. (Photo by Wing-Chi Poon, Creative Commons )

Because of the negative effects poaching can have on wildlife management – and the multi million-dollar economic impact hunting has on the state – the department has placed an emphasis on catching poachers in Arizona. It offers thousands of dollars in rewards for information leading to arrests, manages the Operation Game Thief website and toll-free hotline (800-352-0700) and even uses robotic mule deer decoys to try to catch thieves.

Tyler VanVleet, the department’s law-enforcement program manager, said the hotline is essential to the mission.

“We can’t be out there 24/7, so we rely quite a bit on tips from the public. We get a lot of information from neighbors and people who are out in the field and see something,” he said. “We rely on people to police themselves and do what’s right by the law.”

Last year, the hotline received more than 1,000 calls from people reporting possible poaching incidents or suspicious activity.

“There’s a difference between a hunter and a sportsman,” Officer Orscheln said. “A sportsman is somebody who goes out and abides by all the laws to the best of their ability. They’re out there with the intention of doing it the right way. It’s not just runnin’ and gunnin’, trying to kill something.”

Officer Laura Orschelna with the Arizona Game & Fish Department patrols a javelina hunt near Florence. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

Hunting in Arizona

During Orscheln’s patrol near Florence, she stopped at a campsite after noticing a javelina hanging by its hind legs from a tree. The hunters had gutted the javelina and hung it to preserve the meat.

When Orscheln arrived, the hunters showed their licenses. The hunters had the proper paperwork, but they had failed to tag their animal. Tags are required for permission to hunt certain animals.

In Arizona, there are small-game and big-game hunts. The hunts are organized according to weapon, species and geographic location. For small game, such as doves, pigeons and squirrels, hunters need a general hunting license, and they must hunt the animal within its specified season. For example, squirrels are in season from October to December.

To hunt big game, such as deer, javelina and bears, hunters must apply for a permit through Arizona Game & Fish. The department issues big-game permits through a draw system, which only allows a certain number of permits and tags each year, depending on the species’ population, Orscheln said.

For example, permitted hunters can take two javelinas a year, but they can only kill one bighorn sheep during a lifetime. (And obtaining a permit isn’t easy – the state auctions or raffles three tags each year, bringing in about $400,000.)

Even if a hunter has a license, failing to tag the animal right after the kill can result in a citation. Orscheln said it’s critical for hunters to tag correctly to prevent “buddy hunting.”

“Buddy hunting” is essentially using someone else’s tag for an animal you shot.

“Or people will – and this is the snakey, criminal stuff – people will kill a deer and not put a tag on it. They make it all the way home, they never get checked,” Orscheln said. “Nobody ever knows. They come back out, and they hunt again on the same tag.”

On the February hunt, the hunter who killed the javelina was in his late teens and said it was his first big-game kill. Orscheln let him off with a warning, but she advised him to that he needs to tag his animal as soon as he gets it.

Poaching doesn’t necessarily only mean killing animals without the proper permits.

Orscheln said one form of poaching is wasting game meat. “People can’t just hunt and kill things. You have to take it home for consumption,” Orscheln said. “Or donate it.”

Following the rules

The department established the hotline in 1979 to bring civil action against poachers, or those unlawfully taking, wounding or killing wildlife, according to the department’s website.

It’s one of the main ways the wildlife managers find poachers. Orscheln said they need callers to provide as much information as possible.

“We need the vehicle that they get in and leave in, and a license plate, and what their equipment looks like,” Orscheln said. “If there’s something weird about the way they walk, we want to know that because it all just helps us narrow in on the person who committed the violation. We’re just like any other officer. We can’t write a ticket based off of assumption and heresy.”

Experts said the hotline is popular because most hunters understand the importance of keeping wildlife populations healthy.

“It is absolutely important to go about everything the right way, as far as getting your tag the proper way, putting in through the lottery system,” said Daniel Gradillas, 39, of El Mirage. “Once they give you a tag, they’re able to record data and know how many animals were taken out of a certain area.”

It’s often a delicate balance. Game & Fish officials must weigh populations carefully. If there are too many animals, diseases could spread. If there are too few, hunting could seriously deplete the population.

“If somebody illegally takes an animal,” Orscheln said, “they have essentially robbed someone else of the opportunity to legally take that animal, or they’ve robbed the population of a breeding animal that would contribute to sustaining the population.”

There’s another reason officials want to keep animal populations at healthy levels.

Hunting in Arizona brings about $592 million into the state’s economy, supports more than 5,700 jobs and generates $42.4 million annually in taxes for Arizona, according to a 2011 study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish & Game website boasts that Arizona “offers some of the best, and most unique, hunting opportunities in the nation.”

Gradillas said hunting has been a part of his life since he was a child.

“I first started deer hunting, and to this day, deer hunting still excites me. I love the challenge,” he said. “Any time I go out, I still feel like a little kid. Anytime I look through binoculars and I see a deer, it’s just that excitement that was instilled in me as a child and it never gets old.”

Daniel Gradillas, an El Mirage resident, has been hunting since he was a child. Gradillas is also a taxidermist and is opposed to poaching. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

Poaching: ‘It’s stealing’

Orscheln said most hunters are used to visits from wildlife managers.

During a hunt, Orscheln said she wants to “talk to as many hunters as I possibly can and fly the flag so to speak. Let them know we’re out there.”

“I try to go to an area where I know I’m going to find camps.”

In 2017, wildlife violations in Arizona resulted in $74,500 in civil fines. That money goes directly to the Wildlife Theft Prevention Fund, according to the Fish & Game Department. The department uses the money to reward people who report information that leads to an arrest, fund and promote the hotline, and support investigations into possible poaching.

In January, the department offered up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest regarding the illegal killing of a mule deer near Tucson.

“Poaching itself, it’s stealing,” Gradillas said. “It’s one of the most selfish acts that someone can commit.”

“People can go a lifetime going the proper channels trying to get a tag, say, for a bighorn sheep. Then there’s someone who will go out in the middle of the night and blind a bighorn sheep with their headlights and take it, shoot and then not even take the animal, just shoot it for the thrill of the kill. But it’s very unfortunate and sad.”

Arizona, U.S. and tribal officials work to save native Apache Trout from extinction

PINETOP – Forest fires, climate change and the wrath of non-native fish are threatening the survival of the Apache trout, a species found only in Arizona.

Apache trout, dubbed the state fish of Arizona, mostly are found mostly near Pinetop, with a significant amount of their territory on Native American reservations. Conservation of the trout has required a decades-long collaboration between the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona Game & Fish Department, nonprofits and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Climate change, the drying out of the forests there, increase chances that there’ll be forest fires, and the general increasing of the temperatures,” said Scott Bonar, the leader of a research cooperative at University of Arizona who has been studying desert fish since 2000.

“When you have a fire, you remove shade to the stream, there is sediment that goes in the stream and hurts the Apache trout,” he said, adding that without certain amounts of water at certain temperatures, the fish die.

To some conservationists, analyzing Apache trout populations, understanding threats to the fish and improving stream conditions is a “biologist’s dream” – but it requires a huge effort.

Arizona Game & Fish employees Bryan Giordano and Mike Lopez are tasked with the Apache trout’s survival in Pinetop. They will walk up shallow streams in tandem, Giordano wearing a large electrofishing backpack plugged into a pole he sweeps in the water. Lopez walks close behind with a net, waiting for Giordano to stun an Apache trout they can catch, examine and safely release.

“Electrofishing is the main technique we use to capture fish,” said Lopez, a fish program manager. “We use it during surveys. It’s a system that puts an electrical shock in the water that stuns the fish temporarily, and we can net them up quickly.”

They quickly catch a trout and place it in a yellow sack filled with water. Lopez gently wraps his fingers around the trout and lifts it up. It’s golden brown with small black dots, an Apache trout.

“It’s not often that a trout species is confined to one state,” said Giordano, a stream biologist.

“The state fish of Arizona, it’s unique,” Lopez added. “They exist nowhere else in the world except for Arizona.”

The tribal, state and federal coalition has had success in downgrading Apache trout from endangered to threatened, a rare victory in the conservation world. But the progress can be fragile.

Droughts and fires

Wildfires can wipe out an entire stream of Apache trout, undoing years of progress, Giordano and Lopez said.

The 2011 Wallow fire, for example, devastated Fish Creek, an area that Game & Fish officials had hoped to reopen to anglers.

“We had Apache trout restocked … the adult population was up over a 1,000 fish, which is pretty significant,” Lopez said. “Then the Wallow fire hit and had some really severe burns in that Fish Creek watershed. And the monsoon following that fire had some pretty intense storms in that watershed. Just blew out that whole stream.”

Even without fires, higher temperatures can make the water too warm for Apache trout, or dry up creeks completely.

“If we’re going to save the species into the future,” Lopez said, “we need to look at some of these larger, more permanent streams. … If you have a larger population and a larger stream, it’s more resilient to these long-term droughts and wildfire.”

“That’s where we’re really starting to butt heads with anglers because now we’re getting into some of those streams that they like to fish,” he added.

Fish and sportfish

Arizona Game & Fish has several methods for eliminating the non-native fish, including brown, brook and rainbow trout, that have displaced the Apache trout.

During the summer, Giordano takes interns into the field to electrofish for hours, analyzing the Apache trout and removing invasive species.

“They’ve barriered off streams, they used mechanical and chemical control to remove non-native fishes that cause problems for the Apache trout,” said Bonar, the UA desert-fish researcher. “They’ve done a very good job of increasing the amount of area where there are Apache trout.”

Game & Fish also builds dams when necessary to separate native and non-native populations, and workers sometimes chemically treat a waterway to kill Apache trout competitors.

These other species either would overpower the Apache trout, driving down their populations, or crossbreed with them, essentially eliminating what makes Arizona’s state fish unique.

“Habitat degradation, cattle grazing, logging, road building, a lot of things like that would impact Apache trout habitat,” Lopez said. “And over time, they just started disappearing and being replaced with these non-native trout species.”

The non-native fish originally were introduced as an extra food source, but the White Mountain Apache Tribe noticed the damage to Apache trout and sounded the first alarm.

Some anglers, however, want to preserve non-native trout populations and continue using the streams they inhabit for sport.

“We have all these balances we’re trying to maintain,” Lopez said.

“I spent a lot of time fishing for brown trout, Mike does as well,” Giordano said. “We try to understand the balance that the sport fish, the non-natives, can provide. But I also have a lot of fun going out and fishing for Apache trout as well.”

Bonar agrees with Giordano, and understands why some anglers don’t want their favorite streams interfered with. But the Apache trout is too special to lose, Bonar said.

“How often do people get a chance to go see rare artwork? People collect rare coins. People have interest in rare things,” Bonar said. “Apache trout is extremely rare. … It’s part of Arizona’s heritage.”

Urban oil drilling and fracking face opposition

Culver City California is an iconic Southern California community that was founded on the movie industry 100 years ago, sitting nestled in the heart of Los Angeles County.

Hollywood is to the North, L-A International Airport is to the South and the Pacific Ocean is to the West.
Next door to Culver City sits the nearly 100 year old Inglewood Oil Field.

This thousand acre oil field is the largest urban oil field in the U.S. with its 1700 oil wells, 500 of which are currently active. 10 percent of the Inglewood Oil Field is located directly in Culver City.

The Inglewood Oil Field is unlike any other in the nation because it is smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles County, which is the most populated county in the country.

Homes, parks and schools surround the field. In fact, some of the oil wells literally sit in the backyards of people’s homes. The former Mayor of Culver City and current city council member Meghan Sahli-Wells is proposing a new approach.