The California Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement division has a limited number of wardens available to cover the entire State. There are approximately 400 wardens responsible for protecting our natural resources from poachers. Considering that there are over three million sportsmen in California, wardens are definitely outnumbered in maintaining order in the outside world.
To assist in their efforts, enforcement sometimes rely on the sportsmen themselves to report fish and wildlife violations through the CalTip program. Hunters and fishermen who witness crimes against the resource can call the CalTip hotline and report the violation anonymously.
Having enjoyed the outdoors my entire life, I take great offense to those who break the rules. Being a biologist, I understand the reasoning behind seasons, size and take limits of our consumptive resource. These guidelines are established through sound science and are applied to our hunting and fishing resources to provide a sustainable yield of that resource. Poachers don’t follow the rules, and they don’t care about resources.
A few years back I decided to pick up a deer tag down in San Diego County, very near my office at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. My plan was to wake early, hunt for an hour or two before work and then head straight into the office. I mentioned my plan to another biologist Jason Price and he asked if he could tag along (no pun intended).
Early the next morning I met Jason at the parking lot near the hunting area. We hiked in about a mile and started glassing just as the sun came up. We were late in the season and it didn’t seem like much was moving. After an hour of not seeing any deer, we were discussing our next move when we heard a single shot from the larger hunting area across the road. We had an hour left to hunt and we decided to head over to the larger parcel and finish out our morning.
We parked off the main road, several car lengths in front another vehicle. We grabbed our gear and walked into the hunting area. As we crossed a walk-in gate, I spotted another hunter walking out of the area towards the other vehicle. Jason and I quietly hiked in and started glassing. The area was a huge open field littered with several groups of oak trees. I had hunted this area the year before, and the small oak islands often held deer.
We had been glassing for a short time when I spotted movement under an oak tree about 200 yards out. The small buck stumbled out of the brush, dragging his back legs. He would drag himself a few feet and then fall over. I could see a back wound that had clearly damaged the spine. I also noticed that the young buck was a spike, an illegal age class to harvest during deer season.
We made our way over to the young buck. He made several feeble attempts to escape, but the gaping back wound had clearly severed the spine. He pulled himself up and then collapsed. To end his suffering, Jason walked over and dispatched the deer.
From what we deduced, the hunter we had seen leaving the area was probably responsible for shooting the illegal buck. Since we had finished the job, we knew that our hunt was over. We headed back to the truck and called the local warden to report the incident.
Walking back our vehicle, we noticed that the other vehicle was still there, and the hunter was poking around the bed of his truck. We knew he was waiting for us to leave, so he could go look for his illegal buck. I called the state dispatch and was patched through to Warden Sean Pirttle, the enforcement officer for the area. He was based out of our office and we had worked together on a few other smaller projects. Pirttle came on the line and I told him we were still on scene along with the other vehicle. While I was on the phone I made sure I was out of sight of the other hunter. Pirttle mentioned that he was about five minutes out and would be there shortly.
While we waited, Jason and I acted like we were packing up to leave. Since the hunter had remained there the entire time, I felt he must have known that the buck he shot was illegal or he would have dragged it out already.
A short time later, a green warden truck pulled up between our two vehicles and Pirttle got out. This I expected. What I didn’t expect was the passenger side door opening up and two federal wardens getting out. Pirttle had been giving them a tour of the state wildlife areas when dispatch had contacted him about the illegally shot deer. I remember thinking that today was not a good day to be a poacher.
The two wardens walked to the other truck and Pirttle approached our vehicle. He smiled and winked as he got close. We reached into our wallets and handed him our licenses. Checking us as well made it appear that Pirttle had just happened upon the situation.
He asked us what had happened and what we saw. We told him the story. After a brief discussion, he mentioned that he may want us to accompany them out to the area. After a few minutes, the wardens and the hunter started walking across the road to the hunting area. Pirttle looked to me and motioned us over. I still had my rifle shouldered and for a second I thought about bringing it with me, but I left it in the truck instead. The six of us hiked a short distance lead by the other hunter. He stopped at one of the oak groups and pointed towards another set of trees two hundreds out. I could hear him explain that he took a shot at a buck over by the distant trees. The area he was suggesting was over 400 yards from where we had found the crippled buck, and in the opposite direction.
Pirttle glanced my way as the hunter started talking with the wardens. I subtly shook my head indicating that the suspect was lying. I also nodded my head back towards where the deer was really located. Pirttle nodded and reengaged with the hunter.
Within minutes the group reversed course and was headed back towards the true location. We were approaching the oak grove where we saw the deer when Pirttle grabbed my arm. I
looked over and he was pointing to a legal buck walking 90 yards from where we stood. The buck was a nice 3X3 and it had no idea we were there. Pirttle leaned in, “you should have brought your rifle,” he whispered.
We finally reached the base of the grove, and the hunter admitted that he may have taken a shot at a buck in this area. I let Sean know that he was telling the truth. Up on the hill, we located blood and a pretty noticeable drag mark leading to where the dead deer lay.
The hunter finally admitted that he had shot at a buck in this area and couldn’t find it. He also admitted that he had no idea if it was a legal buck or not.
Pirttle escorted him back to his truck, issued him a citation and sent him on his way. We helped Pirttle load up the small buck as evidence. He thanked us, gave us a ride to our truck and drove off.
Before Jason and I headed back, we made plans to hunt the area the next morning. I got behind the wheel to head to work and thought about the big buck we had seen. I closed my eyes and realized I should have taken my rifle. ASJ