Operation Game Thief

Thanks to confidential tips through Operation Game Thief, the Pennsylvania Game Commission busted four Schuylkill County residents, including two juveniles, who had poached more than a dozen buck deer, mostly at night and shot from a vehicle with use of a spotlight.

Do you feel anyone who poaches deer, bears or other game animals is a thief?

Do you feel, as William Penn did, that wildlife belongs to everybody and those who kill game and protected wildlife of any kind are stealing from all of us?

Apparently many of us do because Operation Game Thief, set up by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 2016, is getting unprecedented confidential tips this year from people disgusted by poaching and want the transgressors caught and punished.

They are. Dozens are successfully prosecuted each year because of the tip hotline, which operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Tips, including those from Lancaster County residents, should set a record this year, making the program the third most active in the nation, after similar ones in Texas and Florida. In fiscal 2019-20, there were 1,617 tips received, an 8 percent increase over the previous year.

“We take wildlife crimes in Pennsylvania seriously,” says the Game Commission’s Chad Eyler, who started the program. “Whether you’re a consumptive user — a hunter or trapper— or whether you are a nonconsumptive user —a birdwatcher, hiker, canoeist, what have you, natural resources are guaranteed under the Pennsylvania Constitution. When poachers are taking wildlife illegally, they are stealing from everybody.”

Wildlife crimes under the tip program include not only illegally taken game animals but also birds and animals protected or classified as endangered or threatened. Last May, after a tip from Lancaster County residents, the Game Commission launched an investigation into the shooting of a great horned owl in Lititz Borough. Another investigation elsewhere in the state followed information given about an illegally killed turkey vulture.

Excuses that some poachers are just trying to provide for their families may have held water during the Depression years but is no longer the case in 2021, says Brian Sheetz, chief of the Game Commission’s Wildlife Protection Administrative Division.

“It is not a victimless crime,” he says.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution says state residents have a right to natural resources and the Commonwealth has a responsibility to protect those resources. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is that steward for wildlife.

How it works

To report a tip, you can call Operation Game Thief’s tollfree, 24-hour hotline at 1-888-742-8001. Your information will go to a secure recording device. Or go to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website at www.pgc.state.pa.us and click on “Report A Violation” in the top toolbar. Then click on “Online Form.” Game violations other than the shooting of big game or protected wildlife should be made to regional Game Commission offices.

Provide as many details as possible, including what you saw and the species involved, date and time of occurrence, county, township address or where the event occurred, description of the suspicious person with details, description of any vehicles and direction of travel.

Though the tips will be kept confidential, it’s important to leave one’s contact information so that a game warden can get back in touch with questions or give updates on the case.

Don’t hesitate to call or file a tip even if you know others have reported an incident. A detail you provide just may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

There is also the possibility of a financial reward if a judge adds a $500 enhanced penalty, half of which goes to the person who provided the information and half to offset expenses for Operation Game Thief.

The latest tip program is far superior to a couple others tried in years gone by because it gets tips into the hands of game wardens in three to 20 minutes, depending on regions.

Here in Lancaster County, a tip called or emailed gets channeled by an automated dispatch system in Harrisburg and if enough detail is included it gets sent to the appropriate game warden in an average of three minutes. By next year, the updated automated dispatch system will be in place in all Game Commission regional offices.

This prompt flow of information can be crucial. For example, in October a call came in that a bowhunter was hunting over bait. A dispatcher notified a game warden who arrived at the scene within 40 minutes and apprehended the hunter with a shot deer near the bait.

In 2020, the Game Commission added an Operation Game Thief Facebook page that has photos and stories of the latest poaching investigations. It has more than 4,500 followers. The most recent cases touched off by tips include the illegal shooting of a piebald buck in Huntingdon County, 21 illegally taken and partially butchered deer in Erie County, and a hunter in Juniata County who was caught for buying a license after shooting a bear.

One year, a photo of a deer illegally shot at night was placed on the Facebook page. An employee of a company that exclusively made the binds that were on the deer for dragging reported that, and the guilty hunter was arrested at the business.

Eyler says there have been cases where disgusted members of hunting camps turned in fellow members for violations and hunters reported poaching by fellow hunters.

Hunters seem to have embraced the program. “Poaching is stealing from all of us and I hate a thief,” said one hunter on an online Pennsylvania hunting forum.

Added another: “Wildlife viewing brings in tourist dollars as well. Let’s all work together and report poachers and help keep the name of hunting clean.”

• Ad Crable is an LNP outdoors writer.

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