Wildlife Officials Defend Tactics In Huge Poaching Raids
LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) _ Anger mounted Tuesday over the arrests of 57 people on poaching charges in a case involving an undercover agent who posed as a taxidermist in the poorest part of Colorado, offering cash for carcasses.
Federal and state wildlife officials defended their actions in the massive raid in the San Luis Valley along the Colorado-New Mexico border, denying accusations that suspects were entrapped or that excessive force was used.
″The operation was well-performed in a highly professional and highly workmanlike fashion,″ U.S. Attorney Mike Norton said at a news conference, where wildlife officials displayed dozens of confiscated illegal trophies and carcasses.
However, officials in the San Luis Valley said the unannounced, early- morning sweep Monday terrorized area residents and entrapped vulnerable people in the poorest part of the state, where one in three people is on government aid.
″Why did they bring 250 people with helicopters and guns and everything else?″ demanded Costilla County Sheriff Pete Espinoza. ″We’re not animals; we’re human beings. I don’t know what they were expecting - a war or something? This isn’t Nicaragua.″
Gov. Roy Romer expressed concern about the ″trauma″ the raids caused in the valley, although he said he did not want to ″make judgments about how it was done.″
San Luis town trustee Augustin Jaramillo said the board ″will pass a resolution Wednesday asking Governor Romer to investigate the tactics used in this so-called raid.″
About 275 game officials aided by a helicopter and an airplane participated in the raid, which officials said concentrated on commercialized poaching and involved more than 13 tons of illegally killed game.
State and federal warrants cited more than 850 alleged wildlife violations involving bear, bobcat, elk, deer, and bald and golden eagles, among other animals. As many as 100 people could be arrested before the 2 1/2 -year investigation closes, officials said.
″We will not tolerate the theft of the public’s wildlife resources,″ Norton said. ″We will use every available legal means to stop this activity.″
Espinoza said he received about 30 complaints from people who said wildlife agents kicked in doors, dragged people outside in their underwear at gunpoint and improperly stopped and searched people.
Galen Buterbaugh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, denied Espinoza’s charges and said the sheriff and others are worried about retaliation in the community.
″It’s gonna be rough down there for awhile, and that’s just the way that area does business,″ Buterbaugh said.
He and Norton said the number of agents was justified because the people they planned to arrest were dangerous and had threatened federal officials.
The operation targeted poachers through an undercover agent who posed as a taxidermist, first in Fort Garland, Colo., and later in Costilla, N.M.
Buterbaugh said the agent did not encourage poaching and paid less than the going rate for carcasses. He said the area was targeted because the agent happened to be there and because there were reports of a huge market in illegally obtained wildlife.
″We always work to make sure that we do not create a market,″ he said. ″The market there was very large.″
But Espinoza said the agent, known in San Luis as John Morgan, was known to hang out in local bars and ″place orders with poachers.″
″For that part of the county that is unemployed, $500 or $600 sounds real good to them. They’re going to go for it,″ Espinoza said.
Wildlife officials would not say how much the agent paid for carcasses.
District Attorney Douglass F. Primavera of Alamosa, Colo., said those charged with state charges had hearings Tuesday in San Luis. About 25 suspects will be tried in San Luis within the next six months, he said.
Another 25 are to be tried in Taos and Tia Amarilla counties in New Mexico on state charges.
Ten face federal charges in Albuquerque and seven in Denver.