EnCon police ally with sportsmen by tracking poachers
By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Region - posted Thu., Dec. 6, 2012
In Connecticut, the various seasons of deer hunting are in full swing. Early season began in September, late season ends in January, and throughout these weeks, the State of Connecticut DEEP Environmental (EnCon) Police are on watch and on call to enforce Connecticut's game regulations, with an emphasis on apprehending illegal hunters, or poachers.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, EnCon Police Officer Stephen Stanko was on duty. He walked through one undisclosed location in northeastern Connecticut where he suspected illegal hunting was occurring. Stanko, who was 2010 Officer of the Year, also received a medal for meritorious service in 2008. He said he considers poaching – which is a criminal act, not a civil offense – to be an egregious act of illegal hunting.
Stanko said that EnCon is not out to alienate legal hunters, but is dedicated to stopping illegal hunting. In fact, Stanko is a hunter and said many of his colleagues also hunt. He uses the meat, and enjoys the sport. “Sometimes people who criticize hunters still go to the butcher shop and get meat or get chicken, or get this or that, and you wonder to yourself, 'Why are you being critical?'” said Stanko.
Stanko said he believes that poachers are relatively few in number, when compared to the large majority of legally-acting hunters. “Most people I run into are legitimate, follow the rules, good hunters,” he said. “I think the majority of hunters are honest and ethical - that's a sportsman.”
Sgt. Matthew Tomassone of the DEEP's Eastern District headquarters in Marlborough agrees, saying “a very high percentage [of hunters] are legal and ethical in every way.” He emphasized that EnCon police officers' efforts are primarily focused on looking for the small percentage of fish and animal harvesters who poach.
“If you're following the rules, you're a hunter,” said Stanko. “We don't want people to fear us, we want people to think of us as the ally, and we are the ally to the sportsmen... and they're our allies too because they give us a lot of tips, and a lot of information comes our way via that.”
One form of poaching that EnCon police follow closely is jack-lighting. Stanko explained this activity as an offense in which the criminal party or parties generally use a small velocity (quieter) rifle to shoot a deer, which they locate after dark (after-dark hunting is illegal) by lighting up a field with an artificial light source to locate and shoot their target. Then, the poacher(s) commonly leave the scene, explained Stanko, returning later – when they feel the coast is clear – to retrieve the animal.
In northeastern Connecticut, EnCon police also look for signs of baiting deer. While legal in some parts of Connecticut, it is illegal in the Eastern District, which is comprised of the 60 towns in the eastern part of the state north of the Marine District. Baiting is a method of luring an animal in by providing food, and then killing it.
Poaching is a problem in Connecticut, or “we wouldn't be making these arrests we do, every single year,” said Stanko. “Since there's few of us [EnCon Police], it's unfortunate that it's going on all the time. I'm back-logged with people calling me with complaints,” said Stanko, who added that a “hot” complaint will quickly turn “cold.”
“It would be nice if we had some other officers who could work in this area to take the onus off of all these calls we get,” he said.
Tomassone echoes this concern, saying that in the nearly two decades he has been with DEEP, he has seen conservation police manpower reduced from 60 to 48 officers, mainly through attrition. “I don't feel like there is enough of a presence anymore,” he said.
In its 2010 annual report, in the hunting category alone, DEEP reports the following enforcement statistics: 888 total incidents; 110 total arrests; and 100 total warnings. The DEEP operates a tip-line for reporting information, which is available year-round for callers to report incidents. “It's essentially a way to, anonymously or not, let us know there are issues in a state area,” said Tomassone, adding that EnCon personnel “investigate to the extent they can with the resources they have.” Tomassone said that some signs of poaching can include vehicles parked in suspicious areas and shots fired at night.
While the DEEP is unable to provide specific data about why people poach, Tomassone and Stanko both agree that hunger is not the primary reason. “I don't think I could be convinced that someone is doing it strictly for survival,” said Tomassone, especially when taking into consideration that hunters are legally permitted 12 deer per season, he said. “The people poaching absolutely have no respect for the animals.” There is no pride, he said, in boasting about or showing off a deer that was snared by jack-lighting, so the reasons for poaching are subject to speculation.
Stanko said that in at least one case, game meat was being illegally sold, but otherwise, he said, “it's not just one core reason.” He stressed that there are ample opportunities for a hunter to legally take deer. “It really puzzles a lot of us to why someone would want to go shoot at night, and not tag their deer and check it in as they're supposed to,” he said. “I don't think predominately a person is going out lighting up a field at night because they're hungry. I definitely don't think that,” said Stanko.
Enforcing hunting regulations are only one aspect of EnCon police duties. As populations of certain species gain ground in Connecticut, the DEEP is also involved in monitoring their presence. For instance, in the western part of the state, the DEEP is involved in a bear tracking project. In that region, said Stanko, the bear population is increasing, in turn causing bear-related calls to the DEEP. Stanko, who is a member of the DEEP Chemical Immobilization Team, said that part of the response is to tranquilize and relocate bears, as well as moose, of which sightings are also on the rise. Currently, there is no legal hunting season for bear or moose in Connecticut, so killing of these animals in Connecticut is a poaching offense.
“There's no season, but we have people arrested for shooting a moose, and we have them arrested for shooting bears. It's just poaching – same thing,” said Stanko, who suggests that people who see bear or moose should report the sighting to the DEEP, either via phone or online.
Tomassone said that EnCon police are busy year-round, with various enforcement activities. EnCon police officers do not just issue written warnings and tickets. They conduct search and rescue operations and investigations such as criminal activities in a park, drownings, suicides or deaths in state parks, hunting and fishing violations and boating violations, and they enforce shoreline recreational fishing and commercial fishing regulations.
“It's incredible what we do,” said Stanko, who has a whole list of statutes to pore through as part of his job. “We have full state police powers. Typically, our jurisdiction is the state forests and state parks, and hunting laws and regulations, fishing laws and regulations anywhere, and boating regulations anywhere,” he said. “Sometimes we'll have assistance from the state police, sometimes the state police will ask us for assistance if they have something that is in more of our repertoire,” said Stanko. “It would be nice to get our manpower back to where it was 20 years ago or 30 years ago, when we had less duties and we had more people,” he said.
In addition, the DEEP conducts community outreach programs such as hunter safety courses and other educational programs.
The Connecticut DEEP produces an annual guide, “Hunting & Trapping,” which provides comprehensive information about hunting regulations in Connecticut. It also operates a 24-hour, toll-free wildlife violation tip-line, 1-800-842-HELP, to which residents may report suspected poaching and other wildlife violations.