When the poachers become the hunted
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.
Clay Hill, a deputy prosecutor for Okanogan County, says he’s impressed with the level of investigation of the wildlife cases he’s prosecuted.
“They set up sting operations with dummy wildlife. They use undercover cops to infiltrate hunting camps,” he says. “That’s more than your average traffic cop. It’s some pretty high-level detective work.”
One case involving a taxidermist practicing without a license required them to break a code he was using to keep records. “They traced receipts back to Oregon,” he says.
Wildlife cases tend to be more complex than other district court cases he prosecutes because they often involve multiple parties, and can include hundreds of recovered photographs.
A poaching case to determine who shot a deer in the field may start with gathering DNA evidence and the bullet, continue with canvassing the area to find out if there were witnesses, and end up with search warrants, seized computers and rifles for ballistics tests.
“Metal detectors, DNA forensics, seized digital images, multiple search warrants — those sorts of cases are becoming commonplace for Department of Fish and Wildlife officers in our detachment,” Hill says.
Wildlife officer Dan Klump graduated from Cascade High School in Leavenworth, and growing up, he often rode along with his father, Larry Klump, a game warden for 32 years.
He remembers using his first tranquilizer gun as a senior in high school, when he helped his father sedate a bear on Blackbird Island.
He knew then that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and went on to get the law enforcement training he needed. Today, he has his father’s badge and number, Wildlife 101.
But the job he has now is quite different from his father’s.
“If you saw the vehicles that game wardens had back in the early ‘70s, compared to what we drive today, you’d say, ‘You guys are expected to drive on those roads with that?’”
And it’s not just the trucks. “From pay and benefits to equipment and training, they have come around tenfold,” he says.
Klump says one of the biggest changes has come with computer technology.
That means more time writing reports, he says. Even an easy citation — someone fishing with two poles without an endorsement — will result in about 20 minutes of writing reports. And a case that’s just a little more complex — someone who shot a deer in an orchard — will take two to four hours of gathering evidence and writing reports. That includes taking photos, gathering shell casings and DNA evidence, getting witness statements, writing it up and entering it into the computer.
But that pays off when he’s trying to find out if someone is a repeat offender. “If a guy here gets a ticket in Western Washington, it shows up on this central system,” he says.
He credits his agency’s Enforcement Chief Bruce Bjork with turning the agency from a ticket-writing to an investigative one, with a focus on solid police work.
Cenci says the changes are largely a result of changing priorities. People are more environmentally conscious today, he says, and they want their natural resources protected.
“Remember, there were times when certain species were considered varmints, and today they’ve got a completely different status,” he says. “I’m sure when Lewis and Clark came through the Washington Territory, they looked at our vast expanses of forests and thought, ‘This is endless. You could cut trees down forever and never have an impact.’”
But although the title has changed, and today’s wildlife officers are better trained in law enforcement, the public’s perception hasn’t caught up.
Indeed, many people still call them game wardens, a term they haven’t used for years. It’s a name that’s linked to a far simpler time, Cenci says, adding, “This isn’t the Wild West anymore, where anything goes.”
This article originally appeared in The Wenatchee World and is reprinted with permission.