- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

RENO, Nev. - Faced with the daunting task of protecting wildlife across the remote reaches of the West, game wardens are using professional savvy, a gift of gab and a bit of technology to snare big-game cheaters who commit fraud and even identity theft to obtain coveted wildlife licenses.

“They’re criminals with guns is what they are,” said Craig Sax, a game warden in Cody, Wyo.

It is common for hunters to claim residence in states where they don’t live because states generally reserve most of their tags for their residents. Resident sportsmen’s licenses also typically cost much less than nonresident licenses, with the price difference escalating for big-game tags. In Nevada, an out-of-state tag for elk costs $1,000 more than a resident tag.

“People from all walks of life do it,” said Russ Pollard of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It’s your doctors, your lawyers, professional people.”

A former Nevada state wildlife commissioner and his son pleaded no contest last month to providing false information to obtain a resident hunting license for the son, who lived in Utah.

In Wyoming, a top prosecutor for Salt Lake County, Utah, pleaded no contest to 10 wildlife license violations, though he retained the right to appeal.

One hunter in Utah applied for big-game tags using the names of more than a dozen people, many of them old girlfriends, said Rudy Musclow of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Others make up names, or use the name of a friend or someone who is dead, officials said.

“They’ll give different addresses, different dates of birth, and try to portray themselves as totally different people to enhance their opportunities,” said Rob Buonamici of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Investigating license fraud is difficult and time consuming. With wardens responsible for policing thousands of square miles, many cases go undetected.

Nevada has 35 field wardens to cover the state’s 110,000 square miles. Utah has 72 wardens for 82,000 square miles.

Though it is difficult to tell how much license cheaters cost state wildlife agencies — most are funded primarily by license and other user fees — officials say the losses are substantial.

“In my opinion, we feel we are losing lots and lots of money by people doing this,” said Glenn Smith of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The Colorado agency reported 54 violations of people making false statements to obtain licenses in 2002, and more than 1,000 in the decade from 1993 to 2002. Last year in Oregon, 65 citations were issued for residency license or tag violations.

Mr. Smith estimated that fewer than 5 percent of license fraud cases are detected. Officials in other states couldn’t provide statistics, but agreed the problem is common.

License fraud victimizes habitat and animals that come under increased pressure from hunters, and residents whose opportunities are limited by increased competition.

Hunting and fishing fees are the “gasoline that runs the engine of wildlife conservation,” Mr. Sax said.

In a move to better detect such fraud, Colorado has automated its licensing system.

Ron Day, law enforcement coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said more cheaters will be caught as states convert to computerized licensing systems instead of handwritten permits sold by local vendors.

“We’re real close [to] where everything will be on a computer,” said Mr. Day, who said that will allow states to share information.

Fines can vary widely, from less than $100 to more than $10,000, depending on the state and whether a hunter used the illegally obtained license to secure a game tag and bag an animal.

For many cheaters, however, the fines are of little concern.

“They’ll just write a check,” said Mark Earnhardt of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

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