Wildlife officials say hunting violations, even accidental, can be costly
The big game hunting season is upon us in Colorado, and some already have taken the opportunity to trek onto the area’s recreational lands with hopes of snagging a moose or bear.
Others have their eyes on hunting deer or elk in the final few weeks of the season or are gearing up for another of the state’s small game or waterfowl seasons. But regardless of each hunters’ proclivities, law enforcement agents with Colorado Parks and Wildlife are around to ensure the proper monitoring and managing of wildlife, and to protect one of the state’s most important natural resources.
While most hunters are ethical sportsmen and women seeking the thrill and challenge of hunting for their own food, there are often bad actors in the field. And violations of the state’s hunting laws, whether on purpose or accident, can have serious consequences.
“Most of the people that participate in our activities — hunting, fishing and even going to state parks — are absolutely trying to do the right thing all the time,” said Dean Riggs, northwest deputy regional manager with Parks and Wildlife. “But there are two major categories of people who often violate our rules.
“There’s the guy that makes the mistake and probably just doesn’t understand the violations. They come from out of state, where things are done differently, and they’re probably not doing it willfully. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, where I would use the word ‘poacher’ — the guy who knowingly and willingly, in spite of the law, goes out and violates.”
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Riggs said the number of violations in any given year is extremely variable, jumping up and down from year to year with seemingly no real driving factor. Violations do tend to be consistent with regard to location and the type of “wildlife interest” in the area. Riggs noted that he came from the Pueblo region, where fishing violations were abundant in contrast to his more recent role on the Western Slope, where big game violations are much more common.
Perhaps the most common violations are safety issues, Riggs said, including hunters who fail to wear the required 500 inches of daylight fluorescent orange or pink clothing, carry a loaded firearm in their vehicle, go onto private land without permission to retrieve a harvested animal, and shoot too close to the road, among others.
And while these might seem like relatively innocuous infractions compared to something like poaching, the repercussions can be considerable — particularly because once a law has been broken, violations tend to snowball.
Riggs gave the example of a hunter who gets over excited and decides to shoot a six-point bull elk but doesn’t get far enough from the road before firing. For the initial violation, shooting from the road, the hunter could be fined $100 in addition to surcharges in the amounts of $37 and $7.50.
Because the animal was killed illegally, the hunter is now also liable for a $1,000 illegal possession fine in addition to more surcharges. Finally, because the bull elk is considered a trophy animal under Samson’s Law — which prescribes fines for animals killed illegally based on horn or antler measurements — the hunter could be hit with an additional $10,000 fine.
In addition to large fines, violations also can result in the suspension of a hunting license based on a 20-point system, similar to a driver’s license. In the aforementioned example, Riggs said the shooting from the road violation would result in a five-point loss, and the illegal possession violation would result in a 15-point loss, enough to take someone’s license away.
“You can easily have four or five violations stemming from one mistake,” Riggs said. “All of a sudden, you start to add everything up, and you’re looking at almost $12,000 in fines. But you could also be suspended in our state, and almost every other state in the union, from legally hunting and fishing. What I’ve found is that fines are one thing for people with a certain level of income, but when you start talking about suspending a serious hunter’s license, that really gets their attention.”
Colorado is one of 45 states in the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, meaning a license suspension or revocation here carries with you almost anywhere in the United States. Riggs noted that suspensions typically last between one and five years and that repeat or particularly egregious offenders could receive a lifetime ban.
The problem of poaching
Certainly not all hunting violations are accidental, and Riggs said Parks and Wildlife deals with a small amount of willful offenders every year. Wildlife officials estimate poaching might be more widespread than most realize, with some national studies indicating that poachers kill almost as many animals as legitimate hunters do during legal seasons.
In Colorado, the most common forms of poaching include the illegal hunting of bears for their gallbladders — Riggs noted they sell overseas to Asia for a high cost — and poachers killing elk and deer, taking their heads and antlers, and leaving the rest of the carcass.
Riggs said in those cases, the penalties will be much more severe, typically including felony charges.
“People kill all sorts of critters because of the nature of the beast and the fact that they’re going to somehow gain monetarily from those species,” Riggs said. “Usually, that’s the extreme end of the poaching industry. … But I’d also put some of those violators in the category of addicts. As they violate the law and don’t get caught, they feel emboldened to continue. Those are the real extreme people. Luckily in our business, it’s like a 1% scenario, and we don’t deal with it on a regular basis.”
While many hunting violations are simply mistakes, Riggs urged hunters to take another look at Parks and Wildlife’s hunting brochures, which keep hunters up to date with new rules and regulations each year. Riggs also noted that any hunter with questions should reach out to a representative with Parks and Wildlife before heading into the field.
“At the end of the day, we want everyone to have a good time, enjoy our outdoors and our great recreational opportunities,” Riggs said. “Law enforcement is a part of wildlife management. It’s a necessary evil. We’re really trying to protect you and make sure our natural resources are taken care of into the future. But it all starts with the individual hunter educating themselves and making sure they know why we manage, how we manage.”
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