The multi-year undercover sting targeted bear hunters, allegedly to bring down poaching circles. But hunters claim they were the victims of entrapment in an overzealous dragnet.
The hunters have repeatedly spoken out, challenging the merits of the undercover sting and accusing wildlife officers of an unjustified fishing expedition. But this time, the stakes were higher. The hunters had landed an audience with the U.S. Congress — namely in the form of a field hearing by the House Congressional Oversight Committee.
“I hope we can shed some light on how this state and federal operation was held,” U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, said at the outset of the hearing.
Meadows said he’s been hearing complaints for two years about strong-arm tactics of wildlife officers — including coercion, entrapment, trumped-up charges and shaky rationale for launching the probe in the first place.
“I do believe some of the conduct of Something Bruin needs to be examined,” Meadows said. “Moreover, if we find things that weren’t handled properly, we can improve the system and make sure mistakes like this don’t happen again.”
Rusty McLean, a Waynesville attorney who represented the largest number of hunters charged in the operation, said the wildlife agents concocted and enabled the crimes in order to punish them.
“This is unconscionable,” McLean said. “The function of law enforcement is the prevention of crime and the apprehension of criminals. That function does not include the manufacturing of crimes.”
Most of those charged ultimately had their cases dismissed due to a lack of evidence, found not guilty or had their charges reduced to misdemeanors. But Meadows acknowledged that hunting offenses were indeed committed by some.
“There were some cases where real crimes were committed and these people need to be punished,” Meadows said.
Meadows also laid out ground rules for the hearing at its outset.
“This is an honest-to-goodness congressional hearing and we have to treat it like one,” Meadows said.
Only invited panelists were allowed to testify — one panel representing the hunters and one representing the four state and federal agencies that partnered in Something Bruin.
The audience sported what was likely the highest concentration of camouflage, caps and work boots ever witnessed at a congressional hearing. Some in the audience were simply spectators wanting to catch the hoopla, but the vast majority were there in a show of solidarity.
“They were railroaded,” said Bryant Helton from Swannanoa, who made the trip to support hunters he felt were wronged.
“People’s rights were violated,” said Michael Stiles from Cherokee County, who described himself as a concerned hunter and fellow sportsman.
The hunting attire dominating the crowd made the suit-and-tie government agents all the more easy to spot.
Also on the scene were TV and newspaper reporters from half a dozen outlets.
Security was tight at the historic courthouse for the hearing. A portable metal detector was posted at the front door, and more than a dozen Waynesville police and Haywood sheriff’s deputies were stationed in the hallways, on the stairs and around the perimeter of the main assembly room.
Operation Something Bruin was a joint operation of four state and federal agencies: U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Georgia Wildlife Commission.
Each agency had a turn to make a statement at the hearing, in which they defended their role in protecting wildlife and natural resources.
“We are committed to doing our part to make sure we have sustainable populations of wildlife for the public to enjoy for generations to come,” said Tony Tooke, regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “Law-abiding citizens that include ethical hunters and forest visitors all deserve access to these rich and shared public resources.”
It’s undeniable that some rogue hunters were putting out bait to lure and shoot bears, as well as illegally trapping them, said Luis Santiago, special agent in charge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“The people who do this are poachers, not hunters. They are not the hunters who have led the conservation successes we have seen over the last century,” Santiago said.
Allegations of entrapment are unfounded, according to Chris Myers, the director of the N.C. Wildlife Commission. He also defended undercover agents who shot bears illegally in the course of the operation.
He said it was necessary for agents to partake in the illegal hunting activities when they were along on hunts in order to maintain their cover. The collateral damage was unfortunate but worth it, he said. The handful of bears shot by undercover agents would ultimately save the lives of more bears in the long run.
Oversight in action
The conservative Meadows has always championed a limited government philosophy and government accountability to citizens. He said he couldn’t let allegations of government abuse go unchecked on his watch.
“For me, it is really about lack of trust in our government and hearing people’s concerns,” Meadows said after the hearing. “They have to have an advocate and that advocate needs to make sure they listen intently without passing judgment.”
Meadows emphasized that the hearing was not a denigration of law enforcement.
“I want to thank them for the role they play in not only protecting wildlife but the people they serve,” Meadows said.
However, Meadows said he was troubled by accounts from those arrested about the “extremely aggressive fashion” wildlife officers used, more akin to a raid on violent drug dealers than mountain old-timers accused of misdemeanor hunting violations.
“They swarmed the house like a SWAT team,” said Tony Smith, a hunter in Haywood County who was ultimately found not guilty of all his charges. “The conduct of the officers at our house was outrageous. They grabbed me by the arms and pulled me out of the house. They pushed past me wearing assault rifles and bulletproof vests. I was terrified because I was at home alone with my 9-year-old daughter.”
Smith said he repeatedly asked the agents to bring his daughter outside to him, but was ignored. Instead, his daughter was left inside with armed agents while the house was searched.
“They took you outside and you kept asking ‘just let my daughter come out?’” Meadows asked.
“They never did acknowledge me asking for my daughter,” Smith replied.
“So they ignored you?” Meadows asked.
“Yes sir,” Smith asked.
“This SWAT team kind of swooping down, do you think that was disproportionate to the crimes that you were even charged with?” Meadows asked.
“Yes sir,” Smith answered.
“What kind of lasting effect did that have on your family?” Meadows asked.
“It has hurt our reputation in the community,” Smith said.