Undercover investigators solve heinous Wyoming wildlife crimes

Thursday , October 10, 2013 - 3:22 PM

Wildlife Detectives

In this Aug. 26, 2013 photo, pronghorn and elk mounts seized during a poaching investigation fill a...

Casper Star-Tribune, Christine Peterson, The Associated Press

The death threat itself didn’t bother Mike Ehlebracht. He’d been threatened plenty times before.

The situation did.

Ehlebracht and his partner were in rural Kansas years ago in the middle of the night with a group of poachers who were high on drugs and shooting deer. Ehlebracht told the group they were TV show producers who planned to open a bar in Wichita. They liked hunting and camouflage and needed cheap meat to serve their patrons.

Sometime in between all of the shooting that night, one of the girlfriends looked Ehlebracht in the eye and told him if he was a cop, they’d kill him and dump him in a well.

It made Ehlebracht a little nervous. At the time he was an investigator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“Under normal circumstances that might not bother me that much, but these people were drugged up,” he said. “Normally, when that threat comes it comes kind of third hand or second hand. It doesn’t come straight at you like that.”

The poachers processed the deer and sold them to Ehlebracht and his partner. Once the deal finished, other officers made the bust. Undercover agents rarely actually arrest the criminals they’ve deceived.

The poachers pleaded guilty. And Ehlebracht never forgot the threat.

Ehlebracht now leads the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife investigative unit. The six members are wildlife detectives, not wardens. Just as police detectives don’t typically give speeding tickets or look for drunken drivers, wildlife investigators don’t check hunting licenses, wear red shirts or drive green trucks.

They’re often undercover and behind the scenes. They work some cases for years, collecting evidence and gaining trust. Other times, they function under elaborate false identities.

Each member offers a different expertise. Together they solve some of Wyoming’s worst wildlife crimes.

Man undercover

Wildlife investigators aren’t much different than officers with the Division of Criminal Investigation or the Drug Enforcement Agency, said Jim Gregory, an investigator who joined the team in 2001.

They go to the police academy, train with law enforcement and spend years as a game warden in the field.

“We all follow the money,” Gregory said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing in dope or dealing in sheep heads.”

Only these guys need to know wildlife, too.

They’ve brought down poaching rings where landowners sell licenses to the highest bidder. They’ve found and arrested people for introducing invasive species into the state. Sometimes they uncover drugs and unregistered guns along with poached hides, heads and meat.

In 2012, the unit closed one of Wyoming’s largest poaching cases. A family outside of Ten Sleep was selling its landowner licenses to hunters without tags.

The landowners earned hundreds of thousands of dollars before a hunter finally reported the illegal process.

However, investigators rarely go undercover in Wyoming. It’s too small of a state, with an even smaller hunting community, to maintain a fake identity. They go to other states that need undercover work and receive help in return.

Ehlebracht worked on one of the largest wildlife cases in South Dakota history when he still lived in Kansas. Landowners sold their tags to the highest bidder and took the wealthy for private, guided hunts. Ehlebracht made it in with the crew, pretending to be a rich out-of-state hunter.

He spent days on their land, even staying in the ringleader’s house. Most of the 26 hunters that weekend didn’t have licenses for the trophy mule deer they killed.

Ehlebracht videotaped the hunters as they returned from the field with a trophy deer pinned with a landowner tag. That information led to the takedown and prosecution of the hunters and the guides.

On one case in the 1980s, Ehlebracht pretended to be a seller of illegal reptiles. A buyer in Louisiana built a network of poachers around the country who would collect and ship him animals. The man then packaged the creatures for sale, making more than $300,000 each year in the trade.

Ehlebracht sold him a shipment of painted box turtles before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved in for the bust.

When they entered the man’s warehouse, they found crates stacked floor to ceiling with hundreds of thousands of snakes, lizards and turtles. One cage alone had 60,000 lizards all illegally collected.

“Nothing really surprises me anymore,” he said. “If people can make money on illegal wildlife, some of them are going to do it.”

Wildlife not for the taking

Wildlife violations, like other illegal acts, come in degrees. There’s the angler who keeps an 18-inch trout when the minimum is 20 inches, or the hunter who shoots a buck in an area next to his own.

Those are important cases, Wyoming’s wildlife investigators say. But they’re not the big ones.

“I wanted to chase the guys who knew they were up to no good, and were going out of their way to steal wildlife from the public,” said Irah Leonetti, the team’s newest member.

Each investigator brings a little something different to the table. Leonetti’s interest lies in ballistics. He can find bullets in the field and sometimes identify the type of gun used in the crime. Before a case goes to court it needs to be analyzed in a lab setting, but his field knowledge helps Leonetti narrow the suspect pool faster and close more cases.

Jim Gregory and Scott Browning have been wildlife investigators for decades, bringing a depth of knowledge of crime, wildlife and Wyoming to the team. John Demaree specializes in analyzing seized computers and cell phones.

“A lot of the hunters and fishermen like to take pictures of their catches and kills and it’s either on their cell phones or in their computers,” Demaree said. “They also send numerous text messages back and forth to their cohorts filling them in on how the hunt is going.”

The information can often be recovered even after it has been deleted.

Demaree worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about eight years ago to track down a man introducing rusty crayfish into Wyoming waters. The crayfish is native to the Ohio River basin and could be destructive in the Cowboy State.

Landowners were paying the man to stock their ponds, unknowingly allowing him to bring invasive species into the state. A ranch manager started the investigation when he questioned one of the crayfish.

It took years to track the man down and collect all necessary evidence. Colorado and Wyoming investigators seized his computers, invoices and contacts. He made more than $200,000 buying cheap species such as rusty crayfish and distributing them on three Wyoming ranches, Demaree said.

Nearly a decade later, the state is still trying to remove rusty crayfish.

The biggest fines usually go to cases where landowners sell their licenses to out-of-state hunters. The organizations are complex and involve dozens of violators all crossing state lines. While those likely won’t destroy a game population, they do give someone who hasn’t applied and worked for a license a chance at one of Wyoming’s trophy animals, Ehlebracht said.

But every once in a while, a poaching case does cut into a local population, Browning said.

A group of hunters shot four moose in October 2012 and left them in a field outside Hudson. They removed two males and two females from a herd of about 12 animals. It was a significant loss to an already struggling species, he said.

“We’ve had photographers and school teachers and moms with kids who stopped and looked at the moose who were really impacted by the event,” Browning said. “They really are stealing not just from sportsmen but all people in Wyoming.

Browning worked with the FBI, Wind River Indian Reservation and local police and sheriff departments to crack the case. The four poachers pleaded guilty, served jail time and paid $30,000 in restitution.

Some people say they just can’t help themselves. Gregory remembers a case near Rock Springs where a man and his buddies were shooting antelope, deer and sage grouse near their oil rig. They would barbecue them in what the guys called the Dog Shack.

Gregory tracked the man down on his way back from Texas.

“This guy reached across the table and grabbed my arm and said, ‘We’re staying at the Wind Gate in Rock Springs. Do you know where that is? Those antelope are on the lawn every morning.’”

He and so many others believed Wyoming’s wildlife was there for the taking, Gregory said.

Gregory, Ehlebracht and the four other investigators work every day to prove them wrong.

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