Idaho conservation officers worked undercover last month to track five hunters suspected of illegally killing elk deep in the St. Joe River backcountry.
The work involved everything from spying on the hunters from high ridgetops to keeping a close watch on a house in Avery where the hunters were suspected of storing their quarry, said Jerry Hugo, the senior conservation officer who organized the effort, dubbed “Operation Snowball.”
Most of the violations that Hugo encounters fit the category of opportunity killings – shooting a deer on the side of the road, for example. That wasn’t the case here, Hugo said.
“These folks were intentional violators. They had it in mind before the season started what they were going to do,” he said, adding that he takes pleasure in making such arrests. “These guys generally have all the meat they could ever eat, but they just keep on killing. … Those are the guys all game wardens like to get.”
Arrested in the operation were West Virginia residents Richard L. Eddy, John D. Mathews and C.W. Mathews; and Avery residents Buckner A. Moore and Michelle M. Castner. The five were charged in Shoshone County with a combined 14 violations, including shooting from a public road, hunting elk without a tag and hunting elk outside of the season. A bull and a calf elk were illegally killed by the group, according to the charges.
Hearing dates have not yet been set for the charges, said Mariah Pugh, deputy county prosecutor. Phone numbers could not be found for the West Virginia hunters. Neither Castner nor Moore could be reached for comment Friday.
Operation Snowball came about after several years of reports of possible illegal activity being committed by the group, Hugo said. Game wardens are responsible for covering upward of 2,000 square miles of terrain – which makes it tough to venture alone into the backcountry to investigate crimes, Hugo said.
Eight other game wardens were enlisted for the operation. Some backpacked into the Snow Peak Wildlife Management area southeast of Avery to set up camp. Others used horses and posed as hunters. The wardens worked 15-hour days watching the hunters.
They had trouble gathering evidence, however, because fog, rain and snow often made it impossible to track the group of hunters, said Mark Rhodes, supervising conservation officer for the Coeur d’Alene District.
Eventually, the key piece of evidence was gathered when an undercover officer in Avery spotted members of the group dump something in a trash bin. It was the head of a cow elk. The officer quickly took a temperature reading and determined it was too cold to have been shot that day, which was the opening day of the season.
The five suspects were arrested Oct. 16.
Although the weather thwarted some of their efforts, Rhodes said the operation was also meant to send a message that game wardens do more than watch the side of the road.
“There’s a perception that we mostly just drive around in our trucks, but that’s not always the case,” Rhodes said.
Hugo agreed. “We’re going to go where the violators are. We don’t care where they’re at.”
Not only do the five suspects face civil fines and the loss of their hunting privileges, but they will also have to reimburse the citizens of Idaho $750 for each of the two illegally killed elk.