Wallace Messer, a bear hunter in Waynesville and treasurer of the N.C. Bear Hunters Association, said he wasn’t aware of such widespread unethical bear hunting. But considering the violators evaded game wardens for years, Messer postulated that the crooked hunting circles kept their activities secret from the honest hunters.
“Them kind of people aren’t going to be out there hunting in front of somebody,” said Messer, who has been an active bear hunter for nearly 60 years. “They aren’t going to let me see them violate — I’d turn them in.”
One aspect of the illegal activity, that of hunting within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and within bear sanctuaries in the national forests, especially troubled Messer. The N.C. Bear Hunters Association had been a proponent of keeping those protected lands closed to hunting — to provide bears respite from hunters and a place to rear their young.
“Hunting (in the bear sanctuaries) could disrupt the raising cycle of the young,” Messer said “If we didn’t have the bear sanctuaries, we wouldn’t have the bear population we have today.”
That strikes at perhaps the most egregious aspect of the illegal hunting activity: wildlife populations can’t sustain that kind of pressure.
He said bears he has chased on a hunt know to run toward the national park or one of the sanctuaries because there they will be safe. They’ll even risk crossing busy roads to get there.
“That’s the only place the bear can lay down and not have someone bother him during hunting season,” Messer said.
Dick Hamilton, a coordinator with the fishing and hunting program of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, said his organization supports strong enforcement of the wildlife laws for the benefit of its 4,500 or so members. He said effective enforcement ultimately benefits the lawful hunters and fisherman by assuring that unfair advantages aren’t used and limits are followed, leaving healthier wild game and fish populations.
“You have to have good rules and then good law enforcement to enforce those rules,” Hamilton said. “Law enforcement is the cornerstone of good wildlife management.”
Hamilton is the former executive director of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and has seen how covert operations are conducted from the inside. Most busts start with a tip from honest hunters or fisherman who spot irregular activity and report it.
Suspicious lights at night, guns shots outside hunting season or random vehicles parked along the boundaries of national parks can be telltale signs of illegal hunting activity and are often easily spotted by other hunters and fisherman.
“The best source of information a game warden can get is firsthand information from hunters in the field,” Hamilton said. “That’s our frontline of defense.”
But even though Operation Something Bruin has thus far been seen as a success by the agencies involved and many wildlife and hunting advocacy groups, it points to a troubling systemic culture of illegal hunting, according to John Edwards, a wildlife advocate in Cashiers.
“It’s a part of the culture here and in other parts of the country where people feel for some reason they have a right to do what they want to rather than what is best for the wildlife,” Edwards said.
Edwards questioned whether the one-time operation would really get to what he saw as the root of the illegal hunting problem: an inadequate number of wildlife enforcement officers to cover large areas where Edwards said such illegal activity can be widespread. On average, the N.C. Wildlife Commission has one game warden per county in WNC.
“Consider there’s only one wildlife officer for all of Jackson County,” Edwards said. “This should be an alert to our North Carolina General Assembly to understand there’s a major problem out here, and they’d better support our wildlife officers.”
Edwards also warned that the real test of justice would take place in the courts, where prosecutors, judges and lawyers would determine the extent to which the violators are punished. In the aftermath of the operation, Edwards said a shared distaste for the poachers and a mutual desire for justice was bringing together honest hunters and wildlife advocates like himself — groups that are sometimes diametrically opposed.
“We think this is a common ground for both hunters and those who value wildlife from a different perspective,” Edwards said.
Although Operation Something Bruin will net hundreds of charges against dozens of suspected poachers, the true quantitative impact of illegal hunting tactics on bear populations is harder to determine.
Mike Carraway, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Commission, said the bear population in the mountains is so high that poaching probably had little effect on the numbers. However, the tactics used by the poachers could influence bear activity. For example, baiting bears with sweet foods can cause their teeth to rot, harm their health and alter their normal activity.
“Bears have a sweet tooth,” Carraway said. “Once they experience it, that could lead them to seek out other candies as well.”
And those other candies could be in places that bears aren’t wanted, such as in dumpsters, near communities or campsites. Earlier this year, backcountry camping was shut down in the Shining Rock area of the Pisgah National Forest due to a bear or bears raiding campsites for food.
Carraway said more enforcement could help curtail illegal hunting tactics. However, budget constraints have forced a compromise between ideal management and realistic management.
“Like any agency, we deal with however much money we get to cover the area that we have to cover,” Carraway said.