Operation Game Thief Nets Cheaters

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You're hunting or fishing -- or just hiking in the forest -- and come across somebody who is in clear violation of wildlife regulations.

What you do with that information can play a key role in protecting Arizona's diverse wildlife populations. In fact, according to Craig McMullen, field supervisor for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, the public's help is critical to his department's chances of nabbing that iota of hunters and fishermen who don't play by the rules.

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Craig McMullen

"Approximately 99 percent of Arizona's hunting and fishing public express a high level of ethics and sportsmanlike conduct," McMullen said. "The remaining 1 percent, often referred to as ‘poachers,' repeatedly and knowingly commit wildlife violations. Essentially, these poachers are stealing from every citizen of the state of Arizona."

The problem Game and Fish faces is a familiar one for government agencies -- lack of manpower.

"The (department) has only about 75 wildlife law enforcement officers to patrol the entire state," McMullen said. "We need (the public's) help to protect your wildlife."

One way Game and Fish fights back is through Operation Game Thief, a program whereby citizens can easily and anonymously report violators.

"Operation Game Thief allows people who are aware of wildlife violations to call a toll-free number 24 hours a day to report them," McMullen said. "Callers can be eligible to receive a reward for certain sorts of violations, and they can remain confidential if they would like to."

It isn't even necessary to witness the violation.

The program led to the conviction of a group of poachers in the Rim country a few years ago, according to Tim Holt, a law enforcement officer for Game and Fish.

The violation most frequently reported is fishing or hunting without a license, according to McMullen.

"In order to take any wildlife, whether it's aquatic or mammals or birds, you have to have a license," McMullen said. "Those license fees go to fund the (department's) management activities, not just enforcement. The department gets no general fund monies from the state."

Another common violation is exceeding limits, and the most frequent of those is surpassing the over-bag limit for trout. But in the Rim country another type of violation predominates.

"The most common in this area is probably a slot violation at Roosevelt Lake on bass," McMullen said. "Bass between 13 and 16 inches have to be immediately released; harvest levels at that lake are high enough that we need to be able to protect fish of a certain breeding age.

Hunters and fishermen also need to realize that it's better to turn themselves in for violations than to get caught in the act.

"Often it is merely a mistake or a lapse of judgment that has resulted in the violation," McMullen said. "If a mistake is made during a hunting or fishing trip, the ethical thing to do is to turn oneself in; responsible people take responsibility for the mistakes that they make."

While turning yourself in doesn't guarantee amnesty, you might be cited for a lesser violation that doesn't jeopardize your privilege to take wildlife in the future.

Wildlife law enforcement officers can also make recommendations to the courts for leniency in situations where hunters or fishermen turn themselves in.

Ignorance of regulations or laws is, as usual, no excuse.

"Go to any license dealer and pick up a copy of the regulations," McMullen said. "Or go online to our department's website: www.azgfd.com.

"What it really comes down to is doing the right thing."

To report violations to Operation Game Thief, call (800) 352-0700.

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