But in reality, wildlife agents went on a fishing expedition, using entrapment and other underhanded tactics to trick hunters into violating wildlife rules, according to dozens of hunters who have come forward to protest the undercover operation.
Known as Operation Something Bruin, the undercover operation netted a several hundred charges against more than 80 hunters. A large number have since had their cases dismissed in court, however, due to lack of evidence.
A public forum was staged at Swain County High School on Saturday, Jan. 18, and was billed as a chance for hunters and their families to talk about their experience as a target in Operation Something Bruin.
Hunters spanning a 15-county area of WNC and North Georgia shared similar stories of trumped up charges and even outright lies from the agents.
The biggest complaint was that the agents set up the hunters and used deceitful methods to trick them into breaking the law.
Kenneth Adams said an undercover agent called him over and over, asking to go on a guided hunting trip outside of hunting season.
“I kept telling him there wasn’t nothing to hunt that time of year,” said Adams, a hunting guide in Graham County.
It seemed the undercover agent had no reasonable suspicion against Adams, but had simply picked his name up as a hunting guide and then tried to drum something up against him.
When hunting season finally opened, Adams took the undercover agent on a hunting trip. But the agent ultimately turned up empty-handed. The only charge Adams got was acting as a guide on forest service land without the right kind of commercial permit.
Brent Thomas, a hunter from Northern Georgia, said he was goaded into trying to sell the gall bladder of a bear on the black market, which is illegal.
“I said, ‘Dude I don’t know what a bear gall bladder is,’” Thomas recalled. “They kept on and they kept on. They said ‘We know somewhere in Atlanta you can get $5,000 or $10,000 for a bear gall bladder.’ I said, ‘I ain’t going to mess with no gall bladders. That’s a felony.’”
Undercover agents would buy bear bait and spotlights, and then try to get other hunters to go along with illegal hunting techniques, according to the hunters and court evidence.
Ironically, the undercover agents shot more wildlife illegally than the people they were investigating. Undercover officers pulled the trigger in the majority of cases involving bears and deer being shot, and then charged the other hunters who were along with them, including bystanders who didn’t have a direct role, according to the evidence in the cases.
“If any of these men wanted to be poachers — and I say ‘wanted’ to be — they would have had slim chance around the undercover agents because they killed all the bears,” said Linda Crisp, who had family members charged in the operation.
In one case, they charged a woman with hunting violations who was along for the ride in the back seat of the truck, according to her claims at the forum. In some cases, undercover officers shot wildlife illegally, put the dead animal in the truck driven by another hunter, and proceeded to charge that hunter with “possession of illegally taken wildlife.”
While there was indeed some wrongdoing by some hunters, there was very little actual poaching exposed, say the hunters. In most cases, the hunters were hunting properly, in season, with permits, on legal game lands, and using proper techniques.
Many of the charges the officers came up with were technicalities, like registering a bear tag improperly — although some would argue these various hunting regulations are in place for a reason, namely to ensure game isn’t overhunted and hunting is done in a sustainable way to protect wildlife for future generations.
Walter Hooper, a hunter from Murphy, said the undercover agents must have gotten desperate when they couldn’t find evidence of a bear-poaching ring in the mountains after all.
“If I was given $2 million and four years, I could come up with more than 10 bear charges that I didn’t have to go out and shoot myself to get the charges,” Murphy said. “That is piss poor investigation or there is not much of a poaching ring out here to start with.”
Speaker after speaker at the three-hour forum last Saturday called on the state to hold an inquiry into the undercover officers’ behavior.
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and N.C. Rep Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, came to the forum. Both pledged to look into the concerns and complaints that they had heard from people.
Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks attended the forum as well and said he would take the concerns to the board of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which he serves on.
“There are some serious issues,” Hicks said. “The processes that were utilized should have been more thought through.”