Hunters in tree stands believe deer won’t look up for danger. Conservation agents in airplanes know game law violators rarely think to scan the sky. They have the arrest records to prove it.
Conservation agents in uniforms and driving trucks with the Conservation Department logo are easy to spot on land. In the air, however, those agents operate in stealth mode. You don’t know they’ve been working until you get caught.
Terry Roberson, who recently retired from the Conservation Department, has flown many patrols during his years as a conservation agent. He said aircraft are among an agent’s most valuable tools.
“You’d be surprised at how much you can see from the air,” he said. “You can familiarize yourself with an area’s roads and terrain. You can see isolated camps, hidden boats, tree stands, lumps in trees that are hunters, baited areas, concentrations of boats, even trails that lead away from roads and rivers.”
Roberson estimates that one hour of air-time for an agent equals up to a hundred hours of ground patrol time. The airplanes allow agents to monitor wetlands, large wooded tracts and other property that would be impossible to patrol without alerting potential Wildlife Code violators.
“Most landowners and law-abiding hunters love that we are using aircraft, because they want us to catch the guys who are doing it wrong,” Roberson said.
The Conservation Department has been protecting Missouri’s forest, fish and wildlife resources from the air since 1946, when the “Flight Department” was established. The Department has owned and flown aircraft continuously since that time.
The Department currently operates two fixed-wing, propeller-driven aircraft—a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 210 and an eight-seat, twin-engine Cessna 402. It also owns a five-seat Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.
“Someone is flying somewhere every day,” said Chief Pilot John Reed. “One day we might fly across a large wetland area counting waterfowl, and the next night we’ll be crisscrossing one of Missouri’s counties looking for spotlighters.”
“When leaves are gone, visibility is especially good,” Reed said. “People think they are hidden—or that they’ve hidden their cars or boats—but all those things are visible when you have the luxury of looking down from above.”
Reed said that from 3,000 feet it’s fairly easy to see spotlighters.
“We can cover a lot of area, and we have agents on the ground ready to respond,” he said. “If we see a light being shined, we’ll take GPS coordinates and keep the vehicle in sight until the agents arrive.”
The planes can follow vehicles wherever they go, even through cities. One fall night in Greene County, pilot Mike Derendinger followed a truck that had been spotlighting a field back to a residential area. He directed agents Mike Loe and Jason Dickey to the residence, where they made an arrest for spotlighting.
While talking to the men involved, the agents noticed an outbuilding with deer heads hanging on the walls and became suspicious. Agent Mike Loe later checked permit and check station records and returned the next day for more questioning, which led to more arrests and to confiscating some of the deer heads.
Conservation agents spend almost half their time teaching people about conservation, but law enforcement remains an important part of their job. Because aircraft are such an efficient means of patrol, all agents learn to use them.
“I’m the one who trains them,” said Cheryl Fey, the Department’s Central Region protection district supervisor. “We do a mock airplane patrol in the academy. They learn everything from how to get into a plane to when they should be using it—and when they shouldn’t.”
Flying in a small plane—often in tight circles low to the ground, or at night while reading maps and charts— isn’t for the queasy.
“Some agents don’t do well in small planes,” Fey said. The ones most immune to airsickness within each region do most of the flying.
“I just need the rest of the agents to understand how the plane locates illegal activity, and how to coordinate with the plane so we can find the violators,” Fey said.
Gene Lindsey, the protection district supervisor in the Department’s northeast region, says he’s participated in plenty of aircraft patrols since he became an agent nearly 35 years ago.
He said agents in his region often fly the Mississippi River and river bottoms in the region to look for illegal baiting of waterfowl.
“We have quite a bit of waterfowl hunting in our region,” he said. “We look for new duck blinds and the bait sites themselves. They’re pretty easy to see from the air. We mark them with a GPS and come back to them on the ground.”
His agents also use aircraft, both airplanes and the helicopter, to monitor smaller rivers for illegal fishing and ATV use in the summer. He’s flown those same rivers in the winter looking for illegal gigging.
“When the rivers freeze,” Lindsey said, “they cut big holes in the ice for gigging. If the ice is clear, they sometimes use axe handles or gig poles to bang on the ice and herd big catfish to giggers that are waiting at the holes.”
Lindsey remembers one patrol when the temperature was near zero degrees. “We landed the helicopter right next to people standing at their gigging holes with illegal fish,” he said.
Hunters who illegally bait turkeys and deer are especially vulnerable to agents in aircraft.
“The last time we flew, we found 48 bait sites in just five hours,” said Kevin Patterson, a protection district supervisor in the Ozark Region. “All we checked was one county, plus a sliver of another.”
Patterson said agents hovered over each bait site and logged in GPS readings. “After we gave the agents on the ground the readings,” he said, “they were able to walk right to the sites.”
Agents in aircraft also helped tame wanton and abusive ATV use on the Black River, which had, according to Patterson, become a circus.
“We made lots of patrols there in recent years,” Patterson said, “and the violations steadily diminished, although it is still a problem.”
Patterson said agents also are focusing on illegal ATV use on the Current and the Jacks Fork rivers. “It’s a constant deal,” he said. “People don’t seem to understand that they are ruining the rivers and destroying habitat.”
“The aircraft help,” he said. “Even if the plane or helicopter can’t stay with them, we can find where they have parked their vehicles and wait for them.”
Agents in aircraft also look for pickup trucks—sometimes with dog boxes in the bed—parked along the road where game is likely to cross. Agents say that when visibility is good in the fall and winter they can even spot dogs running deer.
Gary Cravens, Ozark region protection supervisor, said his agents often use aircraft to spot illegal hunters in boats parked on the Current River near known deer crossings.
“They turn dogs loose to run deer into the river,” he said. “Swimming deer are helpless, and they just motor up and shoot or club them. We caught one guy who killed a deer with a golf club.”
Aircraft make catching river deer-doggers possible, Cravens said. “There’s so much land here that patrolling it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Cravens said that the agents in the aircraft know the game crossings, too, and direct ground units to any type of activity that’s out of place.
Conservation agents typically schedule the aircraft for patrols when violations are most likely. They often fly patrols, for example, before, during and after deer and turkey seasons. However, they also take advantage of empty seats when aircraft are scheduled to fly over their county.
“It’s like multi-tasking the airplane,” Cheryl Fey said. “We try to tag along with something else that’s going on, like wildlife telemetry or a river survey. It’s a good opportunity for agents to learn more about their areas.”
In fact, nearly every flight of Conservation Department aircraft helps safeguard Missouri’s wildlife from violators. All Department employees who fly, whether biologists, engineers, planners, administrators or foresters, take advantage of the aerial vantage point to look for suspicious activity.
Conservation agents say it is a shame that some people don’t respect conservation laws, but they are committed to stopping illegal acts through vigilant Wildlife Code enforcement.
Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
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Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
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Circulation - Laura Scheuler