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Hearing demands answers about bear poaching sting

fr bruinmeadowsBy Katie Reeder • SMN Intern

A recurring theme emerged in a congressional oversight hearing last week aimed at shedding light on the questionable tactics and motives of wildlife agencies behind the now-infamous undercover poaching sting known as Operation Something Bruin: where is the line between personal freedoms and governmental oversight?

  U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, called for the field hearing to get to the bottom of widespread complaints by hunters that state and federal agents overstepped at best — and engaged in outright deceit and trickery at worst — during an undercover investigation of alleged bear poaching rings from 2009 to 2013.

“The reason it raised my sensitivity was I heard a number of different stories that I guess just didn’t seem like America,” said Meadows, a member of the U.S. House Government Oversight committee.

The hearing, held in Haywood County, was the first time the four state and federal wildlife agencies involved in the joint operation addressed the grievances against them.

Meadows was joined by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R- South Carolina, and Rep. Doug Collins, R- Georgia, who were equally disturbed at the way the operation played out.

During the four-year investigation, undercover agents were deployed to infiltrate hunting circles in Western North Carolina and upstate Georgia. The operation has been widely condemned by hunters, with concerns ranging from the undercover agents’ misconduct and manipulation of court proceedings to shaky rationale for conducting the investigation in the first place.

 

Rationale behind the investigation 

The operation was originally portrayed as a way to put a stop to organized poaching rings that sell bear parts, but critics claim wildlife agents concocted this story line to justify an undercover operation.

“There is no instance of any bear part being sold. There was no evidence of organized poaching,” said Allyn Stockton, an attorney from Georgia who has defended some of the hunters charged in the investigation. “There was not the problem that was portrayed — it was more of a solution in search of a problem.”

Bear gallbladders are considered an aphrodisiac in Asian medicine, but demand that once drove poaching for gallbladders has waned.

“With the advent of drugs like Viagra, there is not really a market for bear gallbladders anymore,” Stockton said.

Wildlife agencies were grilled extensively on what evidence — if any — they had of a black-market trade on bear gallbladders based in the mountains.

“You were uncovering gallbladders that were being prepared to ship. You were hearing these gallbladders were being apprehended in other states as they were going out of the country. Is that what you are telling me?” Duncan asked the officers.

Gordon Myers, executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, said the agency had “compelling information” that such activity was occurring. 

“Were these anonymous tips?” Duncan asked. “Or did you have someone come in and do an interview and they told you specific instances?”

“I do not know the source of the information,” Myers responded. 

“Anyone can call in anonymously,” Duncan said. “There are people out there who do not want bears killed, period. And they will raise allegations at the drop of the hat to stop it from happening.” 

Duncan posed the same question to the other agencies.

“What evidence was there?” Duncan asked. 

“I don’t have specific evidence. I just know there were reports of that,” said Tony Tooke, regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s southern region.

“Sounds like hearsay,” Duncan replied. 

The wildlife agencies also claimed they were getting reports from the hunting community that bears were being hunted out of season, caught in traps, lured with bait piles and exploited by unregistered private hunting guides.

Wildlife — like bears — are shared public resources but were being illegally depleted by those violating hunting rules, according to Tooke.

“The operation sought to end illegal conduct that denied others access to the benefits of public land,” Tooke said. “Law-abiding citizens, which include hunters, forest visitors and anyone else who supports wildlife conservation — all of these deserve access to these rich and valued pubic resources.”

Luis Santiago, an attorney for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that agency also received reports and tips from the public about illegal bear hunting.

But Meadows was troubled that a major multi-year undercover investigation had been launched on the basis of tips and hunches. He wanted to know concretely rather than anecdotally how many tips there were and what they consisted of.

“You both said you got numerous phone calls. How many are numerous?” Meadows asked.

Tooke said he didn’t know if the number was documented.

Santiago didn’t know either.

“I don’t have that information. I would have to go and check on that,” Santiago said.

“So you are saying you think you got anonymous tips, but don’t know how many,” Meadows said.

Meadows put it on the list of follow-up information the agencies needed to produce.

“If you can let me know the number of tips you got from the public and when you got them,” he instructed.

Tooke said officers did investigate these concerns and make their own observations about possible ongoing illegal activity. 

The source of tips aside, it’s the role of the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect shared natural resources from exploitation, Tooke and Santiago said.

Santiago said pressure from poachers and the commercialization of black bear parts could lead to declining bear populations. Santiago’s reference to declining bear populations didn’t square with the data on the ground.

“How do you reconcile that with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission biologist who says that, quote, ‘The bear population is the highest it’s been in 100 years?’” Meadows asked.  

Hunters in the audience guffawed at the notion of declining bear populations, which are indeed at an all-time high in recent history.

Santiago clarified that he said the bear populations could decline if poaching continued.

“It may eventually have a negative impact in its population,” Santiago said.

But Meadows was not satisfied, saying what “may” happen is not a reason to launch an investigation of this scale. 

“Why look in Western North Carolina?” Meadows asked. “Because that could be true all over the United States, and we’re seeing an increase in population here.” 

“My guess is that this was the result of the information received from the field by the different investigating agencies,” Santiago responded. 

 

Was it worth it?

Many people have also questioned whether the scope of the investigation was justified considering that the majority of those charged were found not guilty or had their charges dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

Some defendants have also raised concerns about unfair prosecution. Some hunters who had their charges dismissed in state court were then recharged with federal crimes and taken to federal court in hopes of getting convictions there.

But after a string of not-guilty verdicts in federal jury trials, prosecutors worked in concert with agents to steer cases away from jury trials and instead have them heard before a magistrate judge who would be more likely to dish out convictions and jail time.

“I think law enforcement officers knew where they could get the most bang for their buck,” Stockton said, an insinuation tantamount to judge shopping.

“So you are saying they saw people getting off in a jury trial and said, ‘Well, let’s just do away with the charges that would entitle them to a jury trial and move them to a magistrate judge where they would get a verdict that’s more favorable?’ Is that what you are saying?” Meadows asked.

“I don’t want to assign ill motives to anybody without good reason. But they basically moved those down to magistrates court to load them up,” Stockton said.

As a result of Operation Something Bruin, 55 people were accused of wildlife violations in North Carolina and Georgia — the majority of which were misdemeanors. Most of those charges were dismissed by local judges. 

Some cases, however, have been moved to federal court, where there’s been a mix of not-guilty verdicts and convictions. But the charges are still largely misdemeanors.

“What Operation Something Bruin is in a nutshell is probably the largest mass misdemeanor operation in the history of law enforcement,” Stockton said. “I’ve never seen so much invested in a crime which our society and our laws hold at the lower end of the spectrum.”  

Stockton said he’s seen death penalty cases that don’t get this amount of law enforcement. 

Some critics of the operation have said it cost as much as $2 million, but it is unclear where that number came from or if it was simply tossed out on conjecture and then repeated. None of the agencies reported a figure this high. 

Santiago said the Fish and Wildlife Service spent less than $10,000 in material costs, not including the salaries of those involved in the investigation. Meadows questioned whether that number included everything the Fish and Wildlife Service put into the investigation, and Santiago said he would have to research what exactly the $10,000 included. 

“So you prepared your testimony for this hearing, you didn’t get that number?” Meadows asked.  

Meadows also questioned the breakdown of the $70,352.23 figure Tooke reported for the Forest Service. The agency kept itemized receipts of the spending, but Tooke did not have those with him at the hearing. Meadows said he wanted those sent to him. 

For the state agencies, Myers said expenses came out to less than $12,000 for the Wildlife Commission. Major Stephen Adams with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said the agency had no direct costs besides the salary of the undercover officer, the supervisory oversight and what they spent in the takedown phase, which he estimated amounted to less than $5,000. 

 

‘Less than voluminous’ responses

Prior to the hearing, Meadows sent lengthy public records requests to the state and federal agencies. The requests asked for “all documents and communications referring or relating to Operation Something Bruin” going back to January 2009. 

The letters asked the agencies to provide all the information by June 3, in advance of the hearing. 

Meadows thanked the N.C. and Georgia wildlife agencies for cooperating.

But he was frustrated by a perceived lack of cooperation from the federal agencies. He criticized Tooke and Santiago for their agencies’ “less than voluminous” responses. 

Santiago said aspects of the investigation are still pending and that prevented them from turning over related documents. Meadows remained skeptical. 

“I got no documents from you,” Meadows replied to Santiago. “Are you saying there is not one, single document you could have sent this committee that is not involved in an ongoing investigation?” he asked Santiago. 

Santiago said the agency was still reviewing the documents to see what it could release without jeopardizing the investigation.

“Let me tell you what I’m concerned about,” Meadows began, holding up a letter from the Forest Service in one hand and from the Fish and Wildlife Service in the other hand. “How can I get two letters with the exact same wording, except for one sentence, within one day apart? How can I do that if there’s not a coordinated effort to make sure we didn’t get information? How does that happen, Mr. Santiago?”

“I cannot answer that,” Santiago responded. 

“Mr. Tooke?” Meadows continued. 

“We know that the committee has requested documentation,” Tooke said. “I think we have provided one or two.”  

Meadows balked at this statement, pointing out that the Georgia agency has provided 40 gigabytes of data when complying with the request.

“Forty gigabytes and you provided two documents? One of which was just a list of federal charges. Would you say that that is really trying to be open and transparent, Mr. Santiago?” Meadows demanded.

Santiago began an explanation, but Meadows interrupted, asking for a yes-or-no answer. 

“Was it open and transparent?” Meadows asked.

“All I can say is that we have ongoing investigations and there …” Santiago started to say.

Frustrated, Meadows interrupted again and asked if Santiago was willing to send any documents that are not tied up with ongoing investigations. 

“Can I have all the other documents?” Meadows asked. “Mr. Santiago, are you willing to agree to that?” 

Both Santiago and Tooke agreed to send any requested documents to Meadows once reviews of them are completed as long as the documents are not related to ongoing investigations. 

At the hearing’s conclusion, Meadows acknowledged that he had asked some difficult questions.

“They pale in comparison to the questions that I’ve gotten by email, phone call,” he said. “I face these people in the grocery store, and time and time and time again, I’ve been asked ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”

In a follow-up interview, Meadows emphasized this need to address people’s concerns and make sure the full story was told.

“It was about letting the voice of the people be heard,” he said. 

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