Undercover agents spent years gaining the trust of the rogue hunting community, imbedding themselves in the poachers’ social circles until they were eventually invited along on the illegal hunting parties. In all, more than 80 illegal hunters will likely be charged — and another two dozen or so questioned — in relation to nearly 1,000 wildlife crimes, ranging from illegally baiting bears to hunting deer at night with spotlights.
The sweeping investigation encompassed a handful of counties in WNC — including Swain, Jackson, Macon and Haywood — and northern Georgia. The vast majority of violations were committed on National Forest land, with a few taking place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The first wave of arrests were made Tuesday, Feb. 19. However, as warrants are issued and interviews conducted, Major Todd Kennedy, field operations supervisor with the N.C. Wildlife Commission, expected the number of charges and suspects would increase.
Many of the rouge hunters were paid guides who took clients on organized hunts, collecting up to $1,000 for guaranteed kills. Kennedy likened the network of poachers using illegal hunting tactics to a wheel — a core group of violators were at the hub with connections that extended out like spokes.
Some were only distantly affiliated, but others worked together directly and hunted in groups.
“The majority of the group is close friends or acquaintances,” Kennedy said. “But they’re all connected in a loose way.”
At least 10 bears were killed illegally by the poachers during the course of the four-year undercover investigation agents dubbed “Operation Something Bruin,” a pun that borrows from an old English name for a bear. Other bears were shot, but not necessarily killed while some were killed but not witnessed first-hand by undercover operatives.
Some bears were illegally shot at from automobiles and boats. Others were hunted at night, as were deer, with the aid of spotlights. Some were hunted by guided parties on public lands that lacked the proper authorization. And still others were illegally trapped and released for a planned hunt.
But the most common tactic was illegally baiting bears with food left in the woods, luring them to return to the same spot where they could eventually be shot, Kennedy said.
Poachers baited bears on public land, even in bear sanctuaries within the national forests that are off-limits to bear hunting. Bait ranged from chocolate waste products to peanut butter, bought by the ton and placed in five-gallon drums.
Once the bears’ behavior became easy to predict, the poachers could either wait and shoot them when they showed up to feed at the bait location or use the scent trail left by the bear to track it with hunting dogs, scare it into a tree and then shoot it, Kennedy said.
A majority of the violations are criminal misdemeanors and carry a fine of $2,000 and a two-year hunting license revocation, Kennedy said. However, each crime committed on federal land has the potential to be elevated to a federal crime, as do those that involve transporting bears or their parts across state lines.
And some of the suspects, it appears, went beyond just illegal hunting tactics and attempted to capitalize on selling bear parts, from claws and hides to gallbladders valued in Chinese medicine.
“There was a core group of them,” Kennedy said. “But they all had their own little niche.”
Kennedy said miscellaneous bear anatomy was confiscated from the houses of violators: including the meat, claws, bearskin rugs, bear hides and gall bladders. Ornamental deer mounts made from deer illegally killed at night were also confiscated.
The bear gall bladders were the most common part confiscated by law enforcement, Kennedy said. The gall bladders are typically cut out of the bear, freeze dried and then sold to foreign markets. The gall bladder is regarded as an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries.
However, Kennedy said the suspected commercialization of illegal bear parts was minimal, something he attributed to a previous undercover sting in the 1980s targeting the illegal harvest of bear parts in the region. He said that operation has deterred the widespread taking and selling of bear parts since.
“They still talk about Operation Smoky,” Kennedy said.
The undercover sting
Operation Something Bruin dates back to 2009, when a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer stationed in WNC began linking reports of illegal bear hunting activity. The reports, collected from the public, eyewitnesses and other law enforcement agents, indicated there may be widespread illegal hunting in the region.
Moreover, several “common denominators” were detected, said Russ Arthur, a supervisory special agent for the forest service’s southern region.
“They just started matching up,” said Arthur.
The hunch would eventually lead to the long-term undercover investigation. However, at the time, there was little the forest service agent, who identified the pattern, could do alone. Special agents with the forest service — a brand of officer separate from uniformed rangers and charged with more complex investigations — often oversee large tracts of land, spanning 200,000 to 300,000 acres.
The geographic reality, and sophistication of the violators, made detection difficult.
It was at a special meeting of several wildlife agencies — U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the U.S. Forest Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources — that clues started lining up. The same illegal techniques used by the violators to perform hunts and escape being caught were identified by the various agencies across the region, and even state lines. Eventually, officers reached a consensus to begin an undercover operation.
“Routine uniform patrol could not catch these people,” Arthur said. “The only way to see what was going on was to start the covert work.”
What happened next was much like what you would see in a movie, Arthur said.
The first two years were primarily spent getting to know hunters in the local communities. Each of the four agencies supplied officers from outside the area who wouldn’t be recognized to go undercover in hopes of infiltrating the suspected network of poachers. Sometimes 10 to 15 agents worked on the project at one time, before rotating out and returning to other job duties.
The level of covert activity fluctuated with the season, and no agency had full-time officers solely dedicated to the project, which helped curtail the cost of the operation.
The undercover assignments ranged from working in a sporting good store to gathering information from the outside though social media websites. To keep their cover up, some agents imbedded in guided group hunts even shot at bears, often missing the mark on purpose, but resulting in two kills during the course of the investigation.
Meanwhile, files were kept on each of the suspects, amassing evidence for a potential trial. The government agencies involved in the investigation frequently consulted lawyers for guidance on when enough evidence was gathered for a conviction.
Arthur, in his 29 years of experience in law enforcement, said the operation was one of the highly effective at targeting wildlife violators who are often hard to apprehend.
“This is one of the best examples of cooperation I’ve ever seen,” Arthur said. “It might be the best.”
Eventually, the task force was pushed to begin making arrests, due partly to the statue of limitations — typically two years for a misdemeanor — and the availability of resources to keep up the operation. When the arrests went down last week, more than 100 officers were dispatched to round up the suspects across the two states.
In the first few days of mobilization, nearly 50 suspects were charged in North Carolina, and a handful in Georgia.
Their crimes ranged as did their motivations, Kennedy said, from money for running illegal guided hunting trips to peer pressure to take the largest bear.
But, Captain Thomas Barnard, a law enforcement supervisor with the Georgia DNR, said all of them had at least one thing in common the day arrests were made.
“Nobody knew that we were coming,” Barnard said. “They were surprised when we knocked on the door.”