New Mexico Department of Game and Fish/Associated Press
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish/Associated Press
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Eighth Judicial District Judge John Paternoster was looking forward to his Thanksgiving meal when the call came in from a New Mexico game warden. Could the judge sign a warrant to search a property near Las Vegas for poached deer, spotlights and any other evidence linked to illegally killed game?
“He just asked that we get it to him before he sat down for his dinner,” said Sgt. Ty Jackson, a game warden with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
A few hours later, game wardens with a signed warrant in hand were seizing two trophy mule deer heads and other items from the garage of Esequiel A. Mascarenas.
The seizure came after an anonymous tip and a late-night stakeout by Jackson’s brother, also a game warden, plus help from other colleagues willing to interrupt their holiday to help nab poachers. They were lucky on this bust, catching the three men in the act of unloading poached game. Often, all the officers have to work with are headless carcasses, bullet casings and tire tracks.
“We’re investigating crimes where the victim doesn’t talk and the victim’s friends don’t call,” Jackson said. “If a guy is good at poaching, they can go under the radar for a while.”
Tracking down scofflaw hunters who bag game illegally requires some old-fashioned detective work helped by modern, high-tech tools. Usually, game wardens have to handle the entire investigation by themselves, from gathering and analyzing evidence to serving the arrest warrant and testifying in court.
“If (the officer) doesn’t solve the crime in his portion of the world, there is no one else to do it,” Jackson said.
In the Thanksgiving case, they’re only partway to the end. The case still is under investigation, and no one has been arrested. But Jackson said when hunters come home in the middle of a moonless night with dead deer and no hunting licenses, it’s pretty suspicious. Usually, that means the men are using spotlights or some other artificial light on the animals before shooting them, which is illegal.
“We expect there will be numerous charges resulting from this investigation when it is complete,” Jackson said.
Investigations and searches on a holiday are all part of the job for game wardens, now called conservation officers. The 50 or so officers in the field have to keep tabs on wildlife, hunters and anglers across New Mexico. Jackson and two others cover 2,200 square miles in his district.
Poaching long has been a serious problem in the state. Jackson figures that in his 10 years with the department, he’s worked on at least 1,000 poaching cases. He believes illegal hunting decreased after a state law was amended to allow conservation officers to seize poachers’ vehicles.
“Before that, it was rampant,” he said.
Mule deer are especially vulnerable to poaching at the end of November and through December because they are in the breeding season and are distracted from threats posed by hunters, according to Game and Fish.
Most poachers are looking for trophy heads.
“Guys are interested in big antelope, big deer and big elk. You end up with a lot of dead animals with nothing missing but the head,” Jackson said. “It’s about greed. It’s about getting away with something. It’s about bragging rights. It’s about getting drunk on a Friday night and going out with your buddies to shoot something.”
He said one of his officers successfully wrapped up a recent case in Raton where at least four young people in a pickup intentionally chased down and killed six antelope, including four that were pregnant. One of those involved, Clark Reik, 20, is awaiting sentencing after a plea deal in what Paternoster called “an act of terrorism” on the antelope, according to The Raton Range.
Jackson said the officer was part of a team that put together “a great case” on some hunters using muzzleloaders who spotlighted elk before shooting them. The officers matched tire tracks at the scene of the headless elk carcasses with tire tracks at a campsite, obtained a search warrant and found the head of one of the elk. They had DNA samples from the carcass and head tested. They matched.
It takes a lot of hours and dedication to bust a poacher, Jackson said. And it’s important to note all the conservation officers, male or female, are also hunters. They just believe in hunting legally.
“There’s a huge difference between hunting and poaching,” Jackson said. “The legal hunters in the state are the ones who pay for all the wildlife management in the state. If there was no hunting and fishing and no permits, there would be no wildlife management.”
Hunting and fishing license fees pay almost the entire budget for the state Department of Game and Fish. The agency receives no general fund money.
Conservation officers aren’t just trained how to investigate poaching. They have four-year college degrees, usually in biology or a wildlife-related field of study. They go through a year of training in firearms, defensive tactics, boating and more.
“Basically, in a year we have to take them from zero to fully functioning, capable of handling things on their own,” Jackson said. “Every guy we deal with (in the field) is armed, whether with a gun or a knife. An officer has to be able to handle things on their own, with no backup, miles from any help and in places with no cellphone service.”
Conservation officers often work weekends because that’s when people are out recreating, hunting and poaching.
“It’s definitely a job that guys or gals have to be 100 percent committed to,” Jackson said. “You get calls in the middle of the night, on the weekend, or during your kids’ basketball games. If your family doesn’t support you in what you’re doing, you won’t make it as a game warden.”
Besides tracking down poachers, conservation officers handle wildlife depredation calls from private landowners and conduct wildlife surveys to track populations.