Behind the Badge is a regular series of perspective stories by Oklahoma game warden Carlos Gomez. In this article, Gomez shares his thoughts on how the public views game wardens.
By Carlos Gomez, Oklahoma Game Warden
Shortly following a case I prosecuted, I was skewered by people on the Internet. A Texas man – represented by an attorney – was ordered by an Oklahoma judge to pay more than $11,000 in fines and court costs, and sentenced to 30 months of “supervised probation.” Out of the fines, $8,000 was restitution to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC).
This all occurred following a series of decisions made by the “innocent sportsman who was only selling a few wildlife items on eBay!” The “keyboard patrol” had declared this to be his property and were upset that anyone wanting to sell whatever was their own property that they’d caught fair and square should not be illegal for them to sell.
Kind of reminds me of the hot topic of the day — the division among voters. It’s between those 50 percent who voted Democrat (no matter what they knew), or the 50 percent of voters who’d ONLY vote Republican (no matter what)! It can be difficult to declare a definitive winner and it’s difficult for a game warden to also “please all the people, all the time.”
It reminds me a lot of how some sportsmen judge game wardens and the laws we enforce. One group seems to try very hard to know and follow the laws, respect game wardens and what they stand for. They’re my favorite group, naturally. They seem to hold my same views that clearly reflect the way wildlife managers see things.
Then there’s another more critical group, an opposition group, if you will. Whether or not they have their facts straight, they seem to pass judgment (on game wardens), criticizing the decisions we’ve made on the scene, and the sometimes harsh penalties imposed by the courts. They also frequently find fault with our system and how it treats “hapless suspects.”
In one of my cases, after advertising a dozen sets of large whitetail racks (antlers) on eBay in Oklahoma, my phone rang off the hook! “How can he do this?” they’d ask. Doesn’t he know this is highly illegal (in our state)?”
Partly because the problem of internet wildlife sales is so rampant, partly because wardens are so busy, and partly because it is allowed in other states, many people get bad information or misunderstand what is permitted on this topic in the various states. Overt poaching dictates our small force of wardens to focus their energies on hunting and fishing activity, but we do our best to wade off through the complaints on Internet-related crime.
My metropolitan area has so many in fact, I often sort through them trying to determine which case is an innocent mistake of ignorance or an intentional, defiant choice made by a poacher. I may even call up a suspect and tell them who I am and why I’m calling, politely asking them to remove the ad.
But it’s like the answer I gave the lady who asked me, “Are you guys like real police?” My answer was, “Yes ma’am, but you have to really be doing something stupid to cause me to chase after you like the real police.”
I educated her on how the few game wardens we have must focus on the more serious wildlife crimes and are not charged with handling traffic, drugs, and such. Drunk drivers and other such immediate threats to public safety, we’ll step in, but otherwise, we’ll mind our own business.”
Wildlife sales may be permitted elsewhere, but not in Oklahoma and here’s why.
Here, we remember what the major contributing cause to historic, wildlife decimation was — it was the commercialization of wildlife. We want to prevent the repeat of such devastating choices our shortsighted society made over 100 years ago and avoid even starting down that road.
Our legislators here believe commercialization of wildlife could erase generations of sacrifice, conservation and the success of our wildlife restoration programs. There are a few, sometimes confusing exceptions, based on the hunting heritage such as trapping, but for the most part, selling of wildlife is not legal.
There’s a great, 17-minute video produced by the Boone and Crockett Club explaining how market-hunting contributed heavily to our nation’s wildlife demise. Those buyers and sellers of the past weren’t sportsmen, as few even existed during that era of what must have seemed like boundless wildlife. And they couldn’t have visualized the impact their commercialization would have on wildlife populations and the future.
I later learned my suspect (we’ll call him Steve), had been warned by a friend who’d told him, “it’s illegal, don’t to it!”
What motivates some people? Is it the sense of adventure? Greed for easy money? The streak of rebel that runs in many of us, perhaps? I don’t know, but the man blew off his first warning and proceeded into his entrepreneurial adventure.
I set up a female faux-buyer who contacted Steve, and I monitored the conversation. But from a conservation viewpoint, what happened next was almost frightening.
The covert buyer was given a phone number through eBay, and Steve answered the phone. He did not respond to her call with a “hello” or, “this is Steve,” but rather an immediate quiz of, “Is this a game warden?” quickly followed with, “How do I know you don’t work for the wildlife department?”
I quickly realized this guy really wanted to set himself apart from other (innocent or ignorant) sellers and should be worked with a little more scrutiny and vigor.
I contacted my federal wildlife agent who’s equipped to work a lot of covert activity but, he was busy “frying up bigger fish.” But he put me in touch with a warden from another state, Todd Vandivert, of Seattle, Wash. Todd was operating an undercover “chop-shop” of sorts, but his focus was targeting specific wildlife marketeers in the NW area of the country. Coincidentally, he and I had met before and became friends a few years earlier through an officer-exchange program between our two state agencies.
Over the next few months, Todd would produce information and emails from his sales deals (to Steve) on deer heads for hundreds of dollars, before Steve eventually moved away to Dallas, Texas.
But my simple, straight-forward case would have to be put on hold while waiting for the Washington Fish & Wildlife Department to finish collecting the goods on their targeted suspects and close down the (internet) store. If not, it could reveal their undercover identities jeopardizing their cases and safety. Only then could we begin prosecutions.
It had to be a bit of a surprise when finally, two years later, with federal agents in tow, I knocked on the front door of Steve’s suburban Dallas home. I explained how the Interstate Wildlife Violators Compact (IWVC) worked and how it could trigger the revocation of Steve’s hunting privileges nationwide.
The wildlife “chop shop” had documented numerous conversations easily illustrating how he just wanted to make money. While still living in his Tulsa home, Steve had made propositions to sell eagle wings for the market who desired native American artifacts and, for the restaurant markets, Steve agreed to provide his buyers the coveted, all natural, healthier alternative, venison meats — specifically, for the health-minded public who live in the big cities (and don’t hunt) and pay around $25/pound for the best cuts of whitetail and elk (backstrap) steak.
In one conversation, Steve claimed, “I have a group of friends who can help and we can get you all you need!” But, as the TV ad pitchman would say, “But wait, there’s more.” Steve further declared to the undercover investigator, “We have a new bear season now in Oklahoma … I can also get you gallbladders for your Asian market, too!”
Even after all of that evidence, and over four years of patiently collecting proof, standing there on that big Dallas porch, I was still thinking about all those field violations that needed attention back home.
So, with the state prosecutor’s approval, I’d make Steve an offer he couldn’t refuse (or so I thought). He could have received state and federal charges costing into the tens of thousands of dollars not to mention the price of putting up a defense.
So his offer was relatively low in hopes of ending the whole madness. “Sign these tickets, forfeit ownership of the heads and pay $2,500.” And, $500 of that was explained as returning our “buy-money” paid to Steve in the initial investigation. He initially agreed but balked, wanting a day to contemplate his choices.
He had sat down on his porch and half-cried with head in hands saying, “I just want this to go away!”
But that would later turn into a $4,500 offer after a defense attorney haggled with the state prosecutor. Eventually, it all ended up in front of a judge, further tying up the crowded court dockets where, as you now know, he got stuck pretty good. Some will say too hard, and some will say not hard enough.
But before you twitch, and begin to throw your warden under the bus, ask yourself – do I have ALL the facts!
Unlike the historic market hunters who decimated our nation’s wildlife trying to make a living during an era of unregulated hunting and fishing, our modern-day entrepreneurial hunters are learning game wardens and serious measures are in place to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of our past.