By meagan boudreau
Officer Laura Orscheln sets up her binoculars and tripod and stands on a ridge overlooking the quiet desert a few miles south of Chandler.
The Arizona Game & Fish Department wildlife manager spots something moving about a mile away.
It’s just trash, so she sweeps her binoculars elsewhere. She’s “glassing,” a scanning technique that hunters use to identify game from a distance.
But Orscheln isn’t just looking for animals, she’s also looking for hunters. She keeps her eyes peeled and listens for gunshots.
On this day, a javelina hunt, licensed and organized by Game & Fish, is under way, among many throughout the year. As a wildlife manager, it’s part of Orscheln’s job to monitor what’s happening in this expanse of desert.
Nearly 100 wildlife managers travel across the state to monitor hunts, check tags and licenses and study animal populations. They focus on protecting wildlife and stopping poaching, a duty they say is critical to maintaining healthy populations and ensuring the survival of species across Arizona.
Poaching is a widespread problem. Experts estimate that fewer than 5 percent of poachers in the U.S. are caught, the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust reports.
In 2017, Arizona Game & Fish issued 76 citations for the illegal taking of big game, fishing violations and the unlawful killing of raptors. It collected $74,500 in fines.
Because of negative effects that poaching can have on wildlife management – and the multimillion-dollar economic impact hunting has on the state – the department has placed an emphasis on catching poachers. It offers rewards for information leading to arrests, manages the Operation Game Thief website and toll-free hotline (800-352-0700) and even uses robotic mule-deer decoys to catch thieves.
Tyler VanVleet, the department’s law-enforcement program manager, said help from East Valley hunters on the hotline is essential.
“We can’t be out there 24/7. We get a lot of information from neighbors and people who are out in the field and see something,” he said. “We rely on people to police themselves and do what’s right by the law.”
Last year, the hotline received more than 1,000 calls from people reporting possible poaching.
“There’s a difference between a hunter and a sportsman,” Orscheln said. “A sportsman is somebody who goes out and abides by all the laws to the best of their ability. They’re out there with the intention of doing it the right way. It’s not just runnin’ and gunnin’, trying to kill something.”
Hunting near Chandler
During Orscheln’s patrol a few miles south of Chandler, she stops at a campsite after noticing a javelina hanging by its hind legs from a tree. The hunters had gutted the animal and hung it to preserve the meat.
When Orscheln arrived, the hunters showed their licenses. They had the proper paperwork, but they had failed to tag the animal. Tags are required for certain animals.
In Arizona, there are small-game and big-game hunts. They are organized according to weapon, species and geographic location. For small game, such as doves, pigeons and squirrels, hunters need a general hunting license, and they must hunt the animal within its specified season. For example, squirrels are in season from October to December.
To hunt big game, such as deer, javelina and bears, hunters must apply for a permit through Arizona Game & Fish. The department issues permits through a draw system, which allows only a limited number, depending on the species’ population, Orscheln said.
For example, permitted hunters can take two javelinas a year, but only one bighorn sheep during a lifetime. Obtaining a permit isn’t easy. The state auctions or raffles limited tags each year, bringing in about $400,000.
Even if a hunter has a license, failing to tag the animal can result in a citation. Orscheln said it’s critical to tag correctly to prevent “buddy hunting,” essentially using someone else’s tag for an animal.
“Or people will – and this is the sneaky criminal stuff – kill a deer and not put a tag on it. They make it all the way home. They never get checked.
“Nobody ever knows. They come back out, and they hunt again on the same tag.”
On this hunt, the hunter who killed the javelina was in his late teens and said it was his first big-game kill. Orscheln let him off with a warning, but she advised him that he must tag his animal as soon as he gets it.
Orscheln said one form of poaching is wasting game meat.
“People can’t just hunt and kill things. You have to take it home for consumption. Or donate it.”
The department established the hotline in 1979 to bring civil action against poachers, or those unlawfully taking, wounding or killing wildlife, according to the department’s website.
It’s one of the main ways the wildlife managers find poachers.
Experts said the hotline is popular because most hunters understand the importance of keeping wildlife populations healthy.
“It is absolutely important to go about everything the right way, as far as getting your tag the proper way, putting in through the lottery system,” said Daniel Gradillas. “Once they give you a tag, they’re able to record data and know how many animals were taken out of a certain area.”
Game & Fish officials must weigh populations carefully. If there are too many animals, diseases could spread. If there are too few, hunting could seriously deplete the population.
“If somebody illegally takes an animal,” Orscheln said, “they have essentially robbed someone else of the opportunity to legally take that animal, or they’ve robbed the population of a breeding animal that would contribute to sustaining the population.”
Hunting in Arizona injects about $592 million into the state’s economy, supports more than 5,700 jobs and generates $42.4 million annually in taxes, according to a 2011 study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Poaching itself, it’s stealing. It’s one of the most selfish acts that someone can commit. People can go a lifetime going the proper channels trying to get a tag, say, for a bighorn sheep,” Orschein said.