New Mexico Game and Fish conservation officers manage the state’s diverse wildlife.
But the state employees also investigate crimes committed by poachers who illegally hunt or dispose of game animals.
Officers have a vast state to cover, so tips from local hunters or outdoors enthusiasts are essential to helping catch poachers.
The department created Operation Game Thief in 1977. Albuquerque’s Crime Stoppers inspired the program model.
Citizen reports have helped New Mexico officers solve poaching cases of dozens of animals, and paved the way for hefty fines, criminal sentences and hunting license revocations.
Tipsters have the option to remain anonymous, and can report the crime 24/7, online or by phone.
“If you see someone committing a wildlife violation or you suspect poaching, don’t approach them,” said Tristanna Bickford, Game and Fish spokesperson. “Our conservation officers are equipped to handle these situations, so get as much information as you can safely get.”
Cellphone or camera photos are helpful to the investigating officers.
License plate numbers, vehicle information and GPS location can also help identify poachers.
The department investigates every tip.
“Sometimes the cases are turned over to the DA, depending on the specific violation,” Bickford said. “Our officers work closely with state police, local sheriffs and livestock bureaus, and federal forest service and law enforcement officers.”
The officers conduct interviews, search the region, and collect evidence in response to the tips.
Even small tips can be the key to solving big investigations.
A 2015 tip about a headless mule deer in Rio Arriba County sparked a five-year, multi-state investigation, and eventually a $74,000 fine and criminal conviction, for a North Dakota man whose wildlife crimes in New Mexico dated back 20 years.
“Reports of deer poaching are higher than elk or other species,” Bickford said. “We also get tips on nearly every other game animal, and even all kinds of animals like lizards, snakes, turtles, rabbits and roadrunners.”
A tip from southern New Mexico helped officers nab a suspect who had illegally killed and improperly disposed of several elk and deer. That case and concurrent drug charges for the poacher resulted in a six-year prison sentence.
Callers can earn monetary rewards if the poacher is charged or cited.
Rewards are set at $750 for cases involving elk and bighorn sheep, $500 for deer and oryx, $350 for antelope, and $250 for small game, endangered species, turkey, bear, cougar, javelina and ibex.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.