Technological advances are ganging up on poachers...

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Technological advances are ganging up on poachers.

DNA testing, GPS units, mapping software and digital cameras, plus patrol vehicles outfitted with laptop computers and instant connections to state databases are helping game wardens put together solid cases against the creeps who get piggish with our fish and wildlife.

However, the poacher’s worst nightmare could be the electronic devices that are becoming as common in the pockets of teenagers as they are in the pickups of wildlife enforcement agents.

As the number of people carrying cellular phones increases and coverage expands, poachers have less room to hide their evil deeds.

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Reporting suspicious activity no longer has to be put off until witnesses drive out of the mountains or scablands to find a telephone.

Hunters and anglers are rising to the call.

Mike Whorton, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement manager for far-Eastern Washington, said his officers made 703 arrests in the fall of 2004, up from 545 during the same period in 2003.

After surveying the cases, Whorton said it was clear that cell phones were boosting the effectiveness of agent investigations.

“Most of these calls are by hunters witnessing the problem and they want to weed out the bad apples,” Whorton said.

“The difference is that we often get the information when it’s fresh in the mind of the person calling in,” he said. “Sometimes we can get back to them by phone while they’re still in the field and ask questions to fill in the holes in the information.”

Better yet, he said, “sometimes we’re getting reports from witnesses while the illegal activity is still going on.”

Convenience appears to be as effective in encouraging tips on poaching cases as the rewards the state offers witnesses for information that leads to a conviction.

“My own theory is that people see these game law violations and they’re madder than hell,” Whorton said. “In the past, by the time they come back to populated areas to find a phone, they’re not as incensed, or they’re late for something and they’re too busy to make the call.

“It’s the opportunity for instantaneous feedback that makes the difference.”

A man who saw a moose shot illegally near Mount Spokane in November called the Washington Poaching Hotline while he was following the poacher out of the mountains.

“He gave us the vehicle description, where it was headed, reported the license plate number and we made a case on it,” Whorton said. “In the past, the witness may not have had a pen or paper handy and maybe he would have forgotten the license number or something and then we might not have a case.”

John McColgin, a state Fish and Wildlife officer in Spokane County, said he received a message from a cellular phone caller who had seen evidence of a deer being taken illegally near Newman Lake between the general deer season and the late buck season.

“The witness got descriptions of the suspects and vehicle and was able to locate the gut pile for me so I could get there that night, before the evidence was destroyed,” he said.

“It’s almost routine now,” Whorton said, to get calls from sportsmen who are witnessing somebody loading up an untagged deer into their rig or somebody riding an ORV behind closed-road signs.

Of course, all the enforcement officers have cell phones, too.

Just a few years ago, a radio was an agent’s only spotty connection with dispatchers. After receiving a radio communication about a poaching incident, the officer might have had to drive to find the nearest pay phone to get in touch with the witness.

“I know of times when an agent drove an hour from where he got the radio report to where he could get a phone only to find out that he’d been just a half hour from the incident when he got the message,” Whorton said.

Reporting a poaching incident is easy in most states, including Washington and Idaho, where toll-free hotline numbers connect callers 24/7 to state police dispatchers who relay the message to Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers.

Callers can remain anonymous and still qualify for rewards in some cases by reporting illegal activity to the following poaching incident hotlines:

— In Washington, (800) 477-6224.

— In Idaho, (800) 632-5999.

In Arkansas, Alltel customers can use a three-digit number to link directly into the state fish and wildlife agency enforcement division. Alltel does not count the minutes used on the hot line against the user’s cell phone minutes.

But there’s one major problem with the tremendous increase in wildlife crime reports facilitated by cell phones. It’s not a problem easily solved by technology.

“We don’t have the manpower to respond to all the calls,” Whorton said.

“Unfortunately, government budget cuts have left the department short on agents. Investigations are already backed up into January.”

On the bright side, the 29 percent increase in arrests for fish and game violations in the state’s 10 eastern-most counties this fall were made with fewer officers.

“In this region, we’re down to 19 from 21 officers last year,” Whorton said, noting that a new agent will be taking over a vacant position in Spokane County in the next few weeks. “That indicates that the immediacy of cell phones is helping us become more efficient.”

Our enthusiasm for technology can’t be disconnected from the need for trained officers in the field.