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The Colorado Division of Wildlife encourages anyone with information related to wildlife crimes to contact Operation Game Thief at 1-877-COLO-OGT or game.thief@state..... Tipsters may remain anonymous.
A Colorado Division of Wildlife officer never knows what he or she will find during a day in the woods.
Jay Sarason, DOW chief of law enforcement, said he once investigated a man who was selling eagle feathers and trophy heads, and at the same time was growing marijuana, driving a stolen car and dealing methamphetamine.
“He was kind of the prototypical criminal living off anything he could,” Sarason said. He later added, “The commercial violators have diverse portfolios. They make money on things from drugs to stolen equipment to wildlife.”
It was one of about 2,000 wildlife cases the DOW pursues each year.
Although investigations into poaching and unlicensed outfitters are not as publicized as other crimes, wildlife officers put their safety on the line to make sure local wildlife is not hunted to extinction.
Undercover work, stakeouts and crime scene investigations play a role in arresting and convicting poachers and other criminals.
The biggest poaching case in District Wildlife Manager Mike Swaro’s young career started with a simple phone call from a concerned citizen, but it soon blossomed into an investigation that included more than 20 wildlife officers in three states.
The case, which began in November 2008 and recently wrapped up in Moffat County District Court, led to the confiscation of about 25 antlers, three big game skins, a trophy elk head, 78 packages of meat, six rifles and about $22,000 in fines.
Three men from West Virginia — John Davidson, 41, Jeremiah Tyson, 33, and David Park, 38 — were charged with 49 crimes against wildlife before pleading guilty to reduced charges.
Davidson was convicted in the fall of willful destruction of big game, a Class 5 felony, and sentenced to pay $9,800 in fines and serve 30 days in Moffat County Jail, where he is currently incarcerated.
Tyson and Park each pleaded to various misdemeanors earlier in the case.
Davidson and Tyson also face lifetime suspensions of their hunting privileges in Colorado and 31 other states, and Park has been sentenced to a five-year suspension.
As Swaro looked over some of the animal parts taken from the men’s shared house at 605 W. Sixth St., he said he was proud of the work that went into the case.
“These guys are the guys you go for,” he said. “These guys are obviously affecting the resource with how many animals they killed. This isn’t the case where a guy shot a buck to feed his family. If everybody hunted like these guys did last year, we wouldn’t have a deer left in Colorado.”
Hunters like Davidson, Tyson and Park seem to poach as a way to feed an addiction, Swaro added.
“Sometimes it’s a numbers game, just to see how many they can get before getting caught,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a size game. There’s definitely a rush to it that these guys get.”
The frenzied excitement over poaching game was on full display in a recent video released to a Denver-area news station that showed Maybell resident Michael Battaglia, 49, and other men drunkenly shooting their rifles and revolvers while riding around the Maybell area on all-terrain vehicles.
Sarason said the video was first recorded in 2007 and used in a case that spanned about two years of investigations.
That year, Battaglia told two undercover wildlife officers at a local Kum & Go that he had poached some deer during muzzleloader season and invited them to come out for some hunting.
Battaglia recently pleaded guilty to a few misdemeanors and was sentenced to pay a $5,300 fine, and forfeit a rifle and wild game. He faces a lifetime hunting suspension.
Three other men from California pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in the case — including a count of second-degree forgery for creating false hunter education cards — and will pay a combined $4,400 in fines.
Four more also were issued minor citations in the case.
The DOW usually has about 200 cases each year that officers classify as “serious,” Sarason said, many of which require the same kind of undercover work seen with Battaglia.
Sarason said going undercover is an awkward experience, but also one of the most worthwhile in his business.
“It’s stressful, but it’s rewarding because those are the poachers you’d never catch on normal patrols,” he said. “They are like criminal rings. There are things you’d never know without being on the inside.”
Although Swaro has never worked an official undercover assignment — he has traveled the countryside in plain clothes, however — he said he wouldn’t resist an opportunity.
As the son of an Ohio game warden, Swaro believes in what he does.
“I feel like we’re giving a little bit back,” he said. “The deer can’t call us. It’s not like there’s a person involved. No one can call us. We kind of feel like we’re speaking for the critters, and for everyone who wants to make sure we have these animals in the future.”
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or email@example.com.