Just last week, Eric Harper, assistant chief of law enforcement with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, heard of a poaching incident near Castle Rock.
The crime comes near the beginning of the unofficial poaching season in Northwest Colorado. As elk migrate to their wintering ranges and become easier to shoot from roads, Harper expects to be apprised of poaching crimes from now until late February or mid-March, when bucks and bulls shed their horns.
Harper oversees poaching investigations across the state. When the public can't or doesn't provide CDOW officers with information, they are often forced to rely on forensic evidence such as tire tracks or boot prints for a lead. But if the public can come forward with a license plate number or physical description of a suspect, the officers can often begin work immediately.
"The public is critical," Harper said.
A poaching case that happened Nov. 5, 2003, near Skull Creek, east of Dinosaur, is an example of the vital role public assistance plays in poaching investigations.
The CDOW received reports from several Skull Creek area residents of dead elk in their vicinity that day. One 7 x 7 bull qualified as a Samson bull, a trophy elk named after an animal that had been poached in Estes Park not too many years ago, said Randy Hampton, CDOW spokesman.
Public outcry in that case was strong enough that the state Legislature toughened laws on poaching trophy elk. The people of Estes Park built a statue in honor of Samson at the entrance to their town.
Two hunters from California spotted three men along U.S. Highway 40 with the dead elk near their pickup. They asked to take a picture with the Samson bull, but when they approached the bull to photograph it, the three men sped away, Hampton said.
They called CDOW to report the incident, and provided officers with the truck's description, including a business name on its side.
This quickly lead CDOW officers to the suspects, two of whom confessed to the crime and settled their cases in December and January.
Eric Duran, 22, was charged with six crimes, including unlawful possession of wildlife, unlawful hunting outside an established season and unlawfully shooting from a public road. He was fined a trophy surcharge of $10,000 for shooting the Samson elk. On Jan. 20, he paid $13,253 in fines.
Leo Duran, 48, was charged with hunting outside an established season and unlawfully failing to dress, care for and provide for edible portions of elk, a crime commonly called waste of game. He paid a fine of $1,726 on Dec. 17, 2003.
The case against the third suspect was dismissed because the suspect died, Hampton said.
"If the public hadn't given information, we wouldn't have found them. We wouldn't have known who to call if the public hadn't been observant," Harper said.
Generally, the public is good about offering assistance in poaching cases, he said. But often, the public can't provide enough information for the CDOW to narrow its search.
Those who think they've witnessed a poaching incident should be observant of the description of a suspect's vehicle, including its license plate numbers and unusual characteristics, including dents or unique bumper stickers.
The physical descriptions of the individuals, including their gender, height, weight, facial hair and clothing, as well as descriptions of their firearms can help officers identify suspects.