In a large crackdown on alleged illegal wildlife traffickers, game wardens today served 14 search warrants on businesses and homes across Washington, including the house of one man who they say provided “two to three big game animals a week” at times to a pair of undercover officers.
Overall, as many as five dozen people may end up being charged with several hundred criminal counts, according to WDFW deputy chief Mike Cenci.
The sting was the result of a nearly two-year-long investigation that began with Department of Fish & Wildlife officers of the Statewide Investigative Unit creating a dummy website and advertising for fish and wildlife items that were legal to obtain through legitimate avenues.
Soon enough, however, those seeking a quick dollar off the state’s wildlife – “poachers, wildlife traffickers/smugglers and criminal organizations that specialize in commercialization of Washington wildlife” – had found it.
“It began to attract a number of people involved in poaching or selling poached game,” Cenci says.
He says officers found all sorts of wildlife parts for sale in the underground market, from the antlers and hides off game animals’ heads and bodies to their teeth, claws and feathers, gall bladders and caviar as well as skulls and meat.
The case involved all of the state’s big game species, some small game species, threatened or protected birds and even illegal exotic species, according to Cenci.
Diminishing stocks of the Columbia River’s oversize sturgeon were among the fish sold.
Outside of licensed commercial fishermen selling to fish buyers and meat imported from out-of-state game farms, it’s illegal to sell wild game in Washington under state law.
Among the most egregious of the alleged traffickers, according to WDFW, is a 45-year-old Tacoma resident whose house 2 miles south of the Tacoma Dome was visited this morning by the Pierce County SWAT team; the man was arrested in his vehicle.
“He was moving two to three big game animals – deer and elk – a week,” says Cenci.
A search warrant affidavit alleges that the suspect said he got the animals from tribal sources, including out of the Yakima area in late fall and winter when snows force the herd into the hills west of the South-central Washington town. Sturgeon he allegedly sold came from the Snake and Columbia Rivers above Tri-Cities and the Raymond area.
When undercover officers originally met him in February 2011, he allegedly boasted that he’d sold “13 deer and elk, mostly elk this week” as well as “11 last week.”
The affidavit indicates that over the next 19 months wardens were able to observe at least 14 elk carcasses, seven deer carcasses and 16 whole sturgeon plus at least three more deer and elk heads in the house’s garage and in coolers there. They bought many of those animals with $100 bills and reported that the suspect also often allegedly called or texted them saying even more big game animals were available.
As time passed, however, it allegedly became harder for the suspect to deliver big game because his suppliers on the Eastside had apparently found a better-paying buyer in Portland. The last sale between officers and the man occurred Sept. 8 and actually saw him pay WDFW $100 for a doe seized in another case earlier that day, according to the affidavit.
Cenci himself was one of seven WDFW officers assisting in serving the warrant at the man’s house.
“The guy admitted to buying and selling elk and deer meat,” Cenci alleges. “One to five deer and elk at a time.”
Officers today found “small amounts of suspected game meat” at the man’s house, as well as numerous firearms which may or may not have been legal for him to possess.
KING 5 reported he was being booked on 13 counts of illegal possession of big game meat and trafficking in wildlife.
Search warrants were also served at Benton, Skagit and Walla Walla County restaurants that allegedly bought venison, fish, and migratory and upland game birds to serve their customers.
Cenci describes his investigators being asked if they could get venison to eateries for less than the $40 a pound for New Zealand elk. He says Washington elk goes for $500 whole.
He estimated that the series of raids involved around 30 of his officers, between a quarter and a fifth of the force. At least a dozen vehicles could potentially be seized because of linkages to trafficking, he says.
During their investigation officers were careful not to establish new markets or increase the number of animals that were poached, Cenci says.
In one case, he says they counseled a man who allegedly specialized in making art out of raptor parts not to kill one particular capture.
“‘I’m under a tree with a great horned owl – do you want it?’” Cenci says they were asked, to which they replied. “‘No, slow down, you’re going to get caught.’”
He says there’s no tally on the number of lost Washington game and fish animals involved in the case, but he has a list of 60 alleged violators who may be hit with a whopping 400 criminal charges over the coming months, depending upon what evidence today’s warrants turn up.
The frightening thing is what the operation indicates about the greater scope of the problem of illegally selling Washington’s wildlife.
“We didn’t really have to try that hard to attract the business we attracted,” says Cenci. “If you go duck hunting and limit in the first half hour, hunting’s good. If it takes all day, it’s not so good. It really didn’t take long to limit out, which makes me worry that a lot of people are willing to sell wildlife parts.”
He says the overall case spans the country and that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agents assisted with interstate and international elements.
Cenci worries about the illegal commercialization of the state’s wildlife.
“Some trafficking in endangered species has obvious impacts. But with some of these other species the impacts may not be as visible or as obvious, but I think that people recognize the potential. Do we have enough deer, elk and bear to sustain a commercial resource? Our managers would say not … As soon as you allow commercialization, demand quickly overruns supply.”
Not that anyone’s looking to legalize that anytime soon, but the point is clear: It’s being done on the sly and game wardens are likely only touching the surface of the problem.
Today’s raids also come just as National Geographic publishes a large investigative report on rising elephant poaching fueled by the demand for ivory in the Far East.