Forest officials in a multiagency investigation into bear poaching in Georgia and North Carolina served warrants on more than 80 people, concluding a four-year investigation into the criminal activity.
Officers found more than 900 violations and began making arrests Tuesday.
Warrants for 136 state charges in several North Georgia counties, including Union, White and Lumpkin, included counts of bear baiting, illegal use of dogs, hunting from a car and hunting at night and hunting on national forest lands without permits.
“This operation reinforces the dedication, persistence and thoroughness of our conservation officers and their role in protecting our national resources and provid(ing) public safety to our citizens,” said Col. Eddie Henderson, law enforcement chief for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Commission. “Bears and all wildlife are public trust resources in our state. They provide tremendous natural, social and economic benefits to our citizens.”
Officials said it was one of the largest undercover wildlife operations in years.
Called Operation Something Bruin, the investigation also included the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
The investigation sprawled unexpectedly from isolated reports of bear poaching; as the geographic scope and type of charges continued to fan out, agencies sought to combine resources.
Officers with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission infiltrated poaching circles to document violations.
Henderson said the economic impact was low-key.
“It was mostly just a local poaching effort. Individuals or people for hire taking people on guide service,” he said. “I would not say it’s a large financial gain, but some individuals were using it as a business.”
“Most of them were just taking them in and using them for personal use,” he said of the bears. Those included using them for trophy mounts, salvaging parts such as the paws and hides, and using them for meat.
One individual, however, a “true hard-core poacher” Henderson said, is being charged with 99 violations. His warrant has yet to be served.
So far, all the state charges are misdemeanors carrying no more than a fine of $1,000 or one year in prison. Some of the federal charges could end up being felonies, Henderson said.
None of the violators have been identified by police yet, as arrest teams continue to execute search warrants and interview persons of interest. They expect the process to continue through Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve taken a wide variety of things. Bear parts, things we know were used to take the bear illegally,” Henderson said. “Chocolate was being used for bait. Peanut butter was being used for bait. Honey buns (were) being used for bait to take bears in an illegal fashion.”
Henderson said 10 bears in both states have been documented as being taken illegally.
“It’s hard to say how many additional were taken that they are not aware of, but it has had a damaging effect on the population,” he said.
Overall, the regional population of bears has been increasing, Henderson noted, largely due to past efforts.
“In the ’80s there was a similar operation to this called Operation Smokey, and there were a significant number of arrests for similar violations.”
Jonathon Pierce, Southeast Region Law Enforcement Branch chief of the National Park Service, said Operation Smokey developed a sort of mythology over the years.
“People today in hunting circles still talk about Operation Smokey, and over time as people talked about it, they inflated the fines and prison time that were served,” Pierce said. “We’re hoping Operation Something Bruin will similarly reverberate with people.”
This investigation will still be going on for awhile, Pierce noted. Almost 150 officers met in North Carolina for briefings on executing the process.
Henderson noted the violations are not for hunting bears.
“Bears are a huntable population, as long as you do it legally, there’s no problem with it,” he said.