“I guess this is your busy time,” or “You guys are sure earning your pay now.”
During deer season, if a conservation agent hears such comments once, they hear them a hundred times. But deer season is just the busiest time in a job full of busy times. So, just what does a conservation agent do the rest of the year?
In addition to law enforcement, which is a year-round job, agents conduct or attend public meetings, put on programs in local schools, teach Hunter Education, appear on radio and television broadcasts, write newspaper articles, arrange and staff exhibits at fishing fairs and other events, visit landowners' property to give resource management recommendations, and answer a variety of conservation-related questions, both face-to-face and over the phone. The box on page 13 gives an idea of the many ways agents fulfill their mission of protecting Missouri’s conservation resources.
Some people might wonder why agents are used in so many ways instead of being allowed to spend all their time patrolling for violators. The fact is that punishing wrongdoers is just a part of the larger goal of every agent, which is to get everyone to comply with our wildlife regulations. Reaching out to teach the public about why such regulations are necessary to protect wildlife is an important step in achieving their primary goal.
Outreach and education efforts fail to persuade a small percentage of people, however. That’s why conservation agents continue to work hard at law enforcement, not just during the “busy” times of deer and turkey seasons but year-round. As is the case with their education efforts, the range of their law enforcement duties defies description. However, the following summaries of cases should convince you that when it comes to law enforcement, conservation agents never have an off-season.
Early one September evening, Wright County Conservation Agent Keith Wollard received a phone call from someone who’d heard several gunshots near Big Smittle Cave and saw a pickup with two people in it leaving the vicinity.
When he went to the area, Agent Wollard found some empty shotgun shells in the road. He also discovered several dead gray bats, a state- and federal-endangered species, in the road and in surrounding vegetation.
The next day, Agent Wollard was able to locate one of the responsible parties. The man explained that he and a friend had been dove hunting near the area earlier and hadn’t had any luck. On their way home they observed several bats emerging on their evening flight from the cave. The men stopped and started shooting.
Agent Wollard couldn’t locate the second person involved that day, but he did run into him later that evening when he arrested him spotlighting and killing deer out of hunting season.
Both men were found guilty of taking endangered species, for which they received stiff fines, a year of probation and 40 hours of community service work. The second man also was found guilty of spotlighting, received additional penalties, and his hunting privileges were revoked for a period of time.
A few years ago, while making a routine fishing permit check on a man camped on the Eleven Point River, Oregon County Conservation Agent Paul Veatch discovered a live Ozark hellbender in the fisherman’s live basket.
Hellbenders are long-lived aquatic salamanders that don’t reproduce until they are several years old. They are found only in high-quality, clear-water streams and have little tolerance for habitat alteration or degradation. At the time, Ozark hellbenders were a protected species of conservation concern, but they are now listed as endangered in the state.
In court, the fisherman plead guilty but told the judge he didn’t think he had done anything wrong. He had just wanted to show the hellbender to some friends. The judge in this case was very knowledgeable about hellbenders and gave the entire court a discourse about them. After assessing a small fine, he told all present that the new rule in Oregon County is “… if you catch something that is real ugly and you don’t know what it is, you must release it as soon as possible.”
Mussels are another aquatic critter of special conservation concern. Because they are essentially unable to move about in nature and are filter feeders, they are good indicator species for overall stream health. Many species are listed on Missouri’s Conservation Concern Checklist as critically imperiled, and 11 are listed as endangered.
Pulaski County Conservation Agent Aaron Pondrom was patrolling the Gasconade River one summer day when he noticed two people loading a boat and fishing gear into the back of a pickup. When he contacted them to check their fishing permits, he discovered they were in possession of 72 mussels—62 over the daily limit of 5 per person. Both pleaded guilty.
Also in Pulaski County, conservation agents Casey Simmons and Pondrom were patrolling the Big Piney River when they received a report from a passing canoeist who had moments earlier observed another floater shoot a great blue heron.
Based on the description provided, the agents were able to confront the offender and obtain a confession.
On a summer day, Texas County Conservation Agent Travis Mills and Howell County Conservation Agent Shawn Pennington were in the same vehicle headed to a problem area for a coordinated patrol when they noticed two men on the shoulder of the roadway and a vehicle parked a couple hundred yards away. Between the men and the vehicle they noticed several uprooted plants and quite a bit of soil disturbance.
They returned a few minutes later only to find the men and the plants already gone. They radioed ahead to the local police, who stopped the vehicle they described.
The men had about 200 pounds of snakeroot they had illegally dug from the public right-of-way. Snakeroot is a plant of commercial value because of its medicinal properties. Both men were cited.
The Conservation Department still uses some fire towers to watch for and pinpoint the locations of fires, especially during the spring and fall fire seasons.
So when Conservation Agent Jeff Crites was alerted by a phone call to possible vandalism in progress at a fire tower in Shannon County, his response was immediate.
In this case, the caller reported seeing a vehicle parked in front of a locked gate leading to the tower and two people climbing the tower a few minutes later. Agent Crites met the described vehicle coming out of the restricted area. One of the men inside admitted to using a hammer to break the lock off the gate so he could drive up and “…show my friend the tower.”
Both men were charged with entering a restricted area and possession of drug paraphernalia. The man who broke the lock was also charged with second-degree property damage. They pleaded guilty to all charges and were assessed fines and court costs.
Wildfire suppression in the Ozark Region is still an activity that requires much time and resources. The job is made harder because of a few people who set fires on purpose.
The first day of April a couple of years ago, a local pilot contracted by the Conservation Department to fly a fire watch reported two fires strung along a county road near the Shannon and Carter county lines. He also spotted a vehicle in the area.
Agents from Shannon and Carter counties, U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement officers, National Park Service rangers and Shannon County Sheriff’s Office deputies all responded immediately. The ensuing investigation led to the arrest of a man on two counts of felony arson.
The two fires consumed 67 acres of forest, and because the fires were set on U.S. Forest Service property, the charges went through the federal courts.
The arsonist was ordered to pay $13,965 in restitution and for the cost of suppressing the fires and to serve nine months in federal prison. After his release from prison, he was put on probation for three years.
Everyone has a fair chance at the bids for timber sales on Conservation Department lands, but not all people are willing to play fair to obtain the timber.
Through a tip from a concerned citizen, Shannon County Conservation Agent Brad Hadley learned that some people were slipping onto Department land and illegally cutting timber. People in the logging industry sometimes call this type of stealing “grandmawing.” The Department’s Forestry Division determined that timber yielding approximately 23,000 board feet of lumber had been taken.
After an investigation, two men were arrested on felony charges of stealing. Both pleaded guilty. One was sentenced to three years in prison, while the other was ordered to pay $1,750 in restitution and $275.50 in fines and court costs. He was also put on three years’ probation.
Conservation Agent Jerry Elliott received a call from a Douglas County landowner who complained that a neighboring landowner was repeatedly harassing two hunters the caller was allowing to hunt his land.
According to the report, the man seriously endangered the hunters by intentionally shooting over their heads.
Agent Elliott enlisted the help of Texas County Conservation Agent Travis Mills and District Supervisor Roy Hoggatt to handle the matter. Mills and Hoggatt were positioned so they could observe the offending landowner’s residence while the permitted hunters parked their vehicle and began their hunt.
A couple of hours later, Agent Hoggatt was walking out of the property toward the road when several rifle shots went over his head.
Elliott and Mills immediately went to the offending landowner’s property and found him in possession of a rifle. During questioning, he stated that he was trying to “mess up the birds for them.” A witness to the events stated that the suspect was upset because he used to hunt the property, but now someone else was.
The suspect was charged with interference with lawful hunting in the first degree. He pleaded guilty and was fined $164.50.
A man and wife were camping at the Caney Mountain Conservation Area in Ozark County when, around midnight, 14 men on ATVs rode into the area. Yelling and cursing, they tore tarps off tents and cut “doughnuts” in the campsite.
When the men finally left, the man and woman, who had feared for their lives and hidden in the woods, quickly got in their vehicle and went to the Ozark County Sheriff’s office.
Deputies from the sheriff’s office, Gainesville police officers, the Theodosia city marshal, members of the Highway Patrol, and Ozark County conservation agents Quenten Fronterhouse and Tom Leeker all responded immediately. Twelve of the ATV men were promptly rounded up. Each received citations from the agents for unauthorized use of a Department area during closed hours and unauthorized use of motor vehicles on Department areas.
In addition, Highway Patrol officers issued 10 citations for failing to register motor vehicles, and the sheriff’s office filed harassment charges against two of the men. The Ozark County Times ran a lengthy article about this incident under the headline “Campers ‘terrorized’ by men on 4-wheelers.”
On an unseasonably warm day in October, Conservation Agent Dave Ingram was patrolling the White River Trace Conservation Area in Dent County. As he drove along, he was surprised to see a man, naked except for hiking boots and a Crocodile Dundee-style hat, in the middle of the service road. The man turned to “flash” whomever was coming, but he quickly realized it was an official vehicle and ran down a hill through some tall weeds and briars.
Lacking protective clothing, the man didn’t run very far in the briars before lying down to hide. When apprehended a short time later, the man told Agent Ingram he was “just trying to get a little tan.” After more questioning, the man admitted to “flashing” a motorist in the same area a month earlier. He was taken to the Dent County jail and subsequently was found guilty of second-degree sexual misconduct.
You can help conservation agents weed out poachers and others who treat Missouri’s wildlife resources unfairly or maliciously by reporting wildlife violations, forest arson or any other type of resource-related crime.
The Operation Game Thief (OGT) toll-free number is (800) 392-1111. Post the number near your phone or key it into your cell phone for quick reporting whenever you witness a violation. An operator is standing by 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, to take your call and forward the information to a local conservation agent. Callers may be eligible for a reward and, if they desire, may remain anonymous. Operation Game Thief has been available since 1982 and has resulted in hundreds of arrests since its inception.
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