Charges to fit the crime

While poaching is widely viewed as a harmful activity for both outdoorsmen and the environment, penalties for poaching can be nuanced shades of gray.

On the surface, the cases of Javier Garcia and Vernon Bentley appear similar.

Both hunters sought out trophy animals renowned in the area for the size of their antlers. Both hunters used unethical methods to kill a game animal. Both hunters were prosecuted for poaching.

But the similarities start to fade when taking a closer look at the two cases.

In Garcia’s case, he was caught poaching a mule deer out of season, at night and with a firearm not authorized for hunting trophy game.

“A trooper working Labor Day weekend on the interstate was burned out from working the interstate, so he took (Wyoming) Highway 130 on his way home,” Wyoming Game and Fish Senior Warden Bill Brinegar said. “He stopped by the overlook and heard a ‘bang.’”

A hunter himself, the trooper knew the shot was close and after scanning the area, noticed a bright light in the trees. Upon further inspection, the trooper discovered Garcia with a bright tactical light attached to his .223 caliber sporting rifle, which was an illegal caliber for hunting deer at the time, Brinegar said.

Hunting at night is also illegal, as is using a bright light to “spotlight” game.

While Garcia told the trooper he was only shooting at coyotes, the trooper soon found a trail of blood leading to a dead buck.

“The really sad thing about that story is the father talked to me after court,” Brinegar said. “He said he was really sorry and didn’t raise his kid to act like this.”

The exchange with Garcia’s father was out of the ordinary, he said.

“One component to poaching that doesn’t often get talked about is these behaviors are passed down through the generations,” Brinegar said. “When we deal with these folks, they talk about their fathers or their grandfathers doing worse in their time. The behavior becomes ingrained in who they are.”

Garcia was found guilty of the intentional illegal take of antlered, horned, or trophy game, taking wildlife with artificial light, taking trophy game before or after legal hunting hours and using an illegal firearm for taking big or trophy game.

He was fined $5,040 and his hunting privileges were suspended for five years.

Brinegar said the incident was as close to a clear-cut case of poaching as he’s experienced.

On the other hand, Bentley’s situation took a different turn.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time hunter or an old hunter, there’s just some animals guys go silly over and lose their marbles over,” Brinegar said. “It’s like guys fighting over a pretty girl — they do stupid things. It’s the same with deer, they just make really poor choices.”

In November, Brinegar discovered Bentley trying to harvest a trophy deer on private land near Centennial.

Bentley had a tag for the animal, the deer was in season and it was killed at the proper time of day. However, he did not have permission to hunt on the private land and he took his shot from across the highway.

“You have to look at the elements,” Brinegar said. “Our most serious offense is the intent to illegally take of antlered, horned, or trophy game out of season. The charges have to fit the crime.”

Bentley was found guilty of trespassing, failure to properly tag an animal and shooting along or across the highway. He was fined $2,070 and his hunting license was suspended through Oct. 10, 2018.

Despite the sentence, not everyone was satisfied with the punishment.

“It’s a classic case of people wanting to hang this guy up from the nearest tree,” Brinegar said. “But that just wouldn’t be right from our perspective.”

In other areas of law enforcement, the prevailing philosophy is “only criminals break the law, and they should be treated as such.” But at Game and Fish, Brinegar said a game warden’s job is as much if not more building public trust as it is catching poachers in the act.

Without that public trust, Bentley might not have been caught.

In October, Robb Hitchcock, an avid hunter, Casper resident and University of Wyoming graduate, tipped off Brinegar about the vulnerability of the buck Bentley poached.

“We have a cabin above the Centennial area,” Hitchcock said. “Earlier last summer — like July — we were going back and forth to the cabin. We always like to watch the wildlife.”

Hitchcock and his wife noticed a group of mule deer bucks grazing around the same spot several days in a row.

“I saw one particularly large buck, and thought if I was willing to come around dark, I would be able to get a photo, and I did,” he said. “Even in the middle of August, he was pretty big.”

Knowing the area was mostly private property and guessing other hunters had seen the buck, Hitchcock put in a call to Game and Fish about keeping an eye on the animal.

It was during a follow up to Hitchcock’s call that Brinegar caught Bentley in the act.

A zoologist, Hitchcock viewed the crime as not only disrespectful toward law-abiding hunters, but also as a slight against nature.

“(The buck) was in the prime of the life, and that’s part of the tragedy for me,” he said. “It’s such a shame he was not able to spread his genes even further. It was a biological tragedy. It limits what honest sportsmen can get.”

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