WENATCHEE — Compared with the game wardens of years past who focused largely on patrols and writing tickets, today’s state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers are highly trained police officers who investigate complex crimes.
Among hunters, some welcome the change, while others say it’s gone too far.
“They used to have the job because they love the outdoors and were really into hunting and fishing,” says John Brangwin, a Wenatchee attorney who regularly defends people with wildlife violations. “Now, they’re just another police department that gave up a long time ago trying to help hunters or educate the public. I think they’ve really lost their way, frankly.”
But Dave Gimlin, president of the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association, says his group supports strict enforcement of the state’s wildlife laws. They’d even like to see some laws strengthened. “Poaching is a huge problem in this state,” he says, adding, “We’d like to see more law enforcement officers for the game department. They’re spread pretty thin.”
The club has between 300 and 350 members, and almost all of them are hunters or fishermen.
Brangwin says he’s defended people who were arrested for hunting on the wrong side of a road, for using the wrong arrowhead, or for not having a fishing license while helping a grandchild learn to fish. “It sure seems to me a stern lecture would be enough, sometimes,” he says.
Last summer, Brangwin defended James Erickson, a 52-year-old Eatonville man who was caught baiting bears at his cabin outside of Winthrop.
Brangwin claims that Wildlife officers sat on evidence until they amassed hundreds of photos and dozens of bear-baiting counts against him, then used all of the evidence to help their chances of getting a guilty plea.
In the end, Erickson pleaded guilty to 14 counts of bear baiting, with 26 counts dismissed. He was sentenced to serve six days in jail, forfeited his vehicle and was fined $12,000.
But luring bears to your property isn’t a victimless crime, even if you plan to shoot them during bear season, says Wildlife Officer Dan Christensen. The bears get used to eating human food, and can become a nuisance to your neighbors. If they stop getting food in the wild, they’ll eventually cause trouble and need to be euthanized, he says. “We represent a truly needy victim. Wildlife has no advocate,” he says.
Christensen says Erickson wasn’t arrested after trail cameras provided the first evidence of bear-baiting because they still didn’t know why he was luring bears to his cabin. Eventually, Wildlife officers got a search warrant and found a journal in his cabin which included numerous entries from Erickson and several guests, some of whom wrote about shooting bears from Erickson’s porch.
“Part of what we have to show is their intent,” Christensen says. “If you put donuts out on your property and took pictures of the bears, is it to hunt them? Is it to kill them?”
The case against Erickson included over 1,000 photographs, and took up 3 gigabytes of space on a computer.
It wasn’t as lengthy as the case against Bill White, a Twisp cattleman who pleaded guilty in federal court last summer to conspiring to kill a wolf. That case, along with the the wolf poaching charges against White’s son, Tom White, and hidaughter-in-law, Erin, who was caught mailing a wolf pelt to Canada, took up 1,600 pages of discovery. It took hours just to read the evidence against them, says their Spokane lawyer, Craig Smith.
“The Department of Fish and Game zealously went after them. I’d compare it to a major drug conspiracy case, which are often really long, drawn-out complicated cases with pages and pages of discovery,” Smith says.
Bill White declined to talk about his wolf conspiracy case. But he did say he thinks wildlife offenses end up being a bigger priority than some crimes against people.
He says after he was accused of being involved with the wolf killings, he received multiple hate calls, someone slapped in the face, he endured rude remarks and even had some death threats.
“Why doesn’t the government spend time searching out death threats instead of chasing people down that caught too many fish?” he asked. “It appears that the money allocation for investigating wildlife crimes has gotten way out of balance.”
Gimlin, however, says it doesn’t seem out of balance for people who obey the laws. “I can’t say they never overstep their bounds,” the Sportsmen’s Association president says. “But to say that they need less enforcement authority, I don’t think so, and I’ve never heard anybody in our club say that.”
Gimlin says he sometimes sees comments on hunting forums by people who don’t like the Wildlife department, or the laws. “They’d rather be free to do what they want,” he says.
But with Washington’s growing population, and the loss of habitat and wildlife, it was necessary for the agency to shift from a patrol status to one that actively investigates wildlife crimes, he says, adding, “A true sportsmen does things the right way, within the law. They don’t cheat.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512