In an office building in Omak, Dan Christensen sits in front of two computers. On one, he’s filling out a damage complaint for deer that got into a nearby orchard. On the other, he’s recovering digital photographs erased from a memory card that may contain important evidence. The $4,500 thumbdrive that helps him reconstruct a photograph was developed to investigate child pornography.
But Christensen isn’t looking for people who make and distribute child porn. He’s trying to find the people who poach deer, bait bear or kill wolves.
As a law enforcement officer for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, he uses the same tools available to other police. He sets up stakeouts, gets search warrants, gathers DNA and fingerprint evidence, and uses a variety of surveillance techniques. He’s one of two Wildlife officers in the state trained in computer forensics. Some of the cases he investigates are as complex as major crimes.
“People think we’re driving around through the woods, talking to the deer. That’s really not the case,” Christensen says. “Most all of us have worked everything from homicides to missing children.”
The 150 commissioned officers who work for Fish and Wildlife cover everything from commercial fishing in the Columbia River and Puget Sound to hunting violations in the wilds of Eastern Washington. They respond to cougar complaints and marijuana grows. Their reach extends from the Canadian border to the international waters with Mexico, where they have jurisdiction over any vessel registered in Washington state.
“Our law enforcement officers have more authority than any other in the state of Washington,” says Mike Cenci, the agency’s deputy chief of enforcement.
As general authority police, his officers have jurisdiction to enforce all state laws, and the authority to inspect boats or containers without a warrant, similar to that of a U.S. Customs agent.
It’s one of the most dangerous police jobs because nearly everyone they come in contact with is armed. And, they are often alone, with the nearest backup sometimes hours away.
“If someone has the inclination to hurt you in this field, the risks of that happening are very high,” Cenci says.
Christensen says people who violate fish and wildlife laws usually know they’re breaking the law. It’s surprising how many are arrogant about it. “We are not out arresting people who are trying to feed their family,” he says. “It’s about that person who thinks they’re above the law.”
To find those people, Wildlife officers do patrol rivers and lakes and hunting grounds. But they also rely on the public to provide tips about poachers or other people violating wildlife laws. And with today’s technology, those people use cell phones to take photos of the evidence, or the violator’s license plate to provide them with proof.
Often, Christensen says, the violators themselves provide the best evidence.
In the case against a Western Washington man who was baiting bears to his cabin near Winthrop so he could shoot them from his porch, Wildlife officers used photos from his own trail camera to show what he’d been doing.
Unlike many other crimes, wildlife offenders often document their crimes. “They’ve got to take a picture to brag,” Christensen says.
He says people often ask why they aren’t out arresting the real criminals.
But wildlife crimes are real crimes, he says. The 10 percent who violate the law make it unfair for the 90 percent who follow it. “We really just seek fairness,” he says.
As part of the job, Wildlife officers gather a lot of evidence, and try to submit a thorough case to the prosecutor. That’s partly because they’re competing with other agencies to get their cases charged and heard by a judge.
“For me to get something into court, I know I have to have a really good case,” Christensen says. “If somebody smacks his wife, it’s a no-brainer. But I’m having to compete with a case where the state’s the victim,” he says.
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