Trucks rolled through the Lander regional Wyoming Game and Fish check station on Saturday morning, the drivers displaying their trophy for the day or explaining an unsuccessful hunt.
Lander hunter Latane Frank lowered his truck’s tailgate to show his buck to Jason Hunter, Lander’s wildlife supervisor and game warden.
“We’ll take your license,” Hunter said.
Frank took the muddied and torn tag off of the buck’s ankle.
“I had a sloppy drag back to the truck,” Frank said.
“For the future, you don’t have to put the license on him until you get the animal to the truck,” Hunter explained.
“But it does have to be with the animal at all times.”
Check stations, often just a couple Game and Fish trucks on the side of the road, are used to collect biological samples from harvested animals for research on diseases or population. They also serve as a reminder that Game and Fish officials are in the field, just in case a hunter feels tempted to take something illegally.
“Most people who come through here are law-abiding citizens,” Hunter said.
“But I have seen people come through with birds stuffed behind hubcaps.”
He’s also had to chase hunters down. Legally, all hunters are required to stop at check stations and show their hunting licenses. If a truck passes and the driver is wearing a hunter-orange hat, Hunter needs to know why it didn’t stop.
During this fall’s hunting season, Game and Fish officials remind hunters that check stations are just one way they catch poachers. Game wardens scour the field looking for people, watching and waiting. What they find sometimes surprises even the most seasoned veterans.
Let these stories be a reminder, hunters: You’re not as alone in the woods as you think.
When veteran Lander game warden Brad Hovengay found the scene several years ago, he thought someone had been murdered.
A truck was stuck in the mountains above Dubois, the doors open, wallet and rifle on the seat. Blood was everywhere.
It wasn’t deer season, but he found four quarters of a deer in the back of the truck.
“I thought whoever poached the deer was offed after it happened,” he said.
Two sets of footprints and blood led into the trees. Even with close to 20 years as a game warden, Hovengay didn’t know what he’d find.
It turned out to be a huge buck head hidden in the brush. Snowmobile tracks led away, toward town. Hovengay uncovered the story when he got back to Dubois.
A man in the backcountry got his truck stuck, and then saw the biggest buck of his life. He couldn’t resist, so he shot and quartered it.
As he tried to free his truck, he cut the femoral artery in his leg.
“He was so worried about the deer, that while he was bleeding profusely he decided to stash the deer head to not get caught,” Hovengay said.
The man then drove his snowmobile into Dubois, reaching the hospital just before he bled to death.
The man was fined $5,000 and lost his hunting privileges for five years.
“Justice sometimes comes in mysterious ways,” Hovengay said.
Powell Game Warden Chris Queen, 42, noticed the truck with New York license plates at three different places before the 2007 bighorn sheep season even started.
It was always parked at places Queen would have gone to scout for sheep.
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His list of license holders showed a 27-year-old man from New York drew a tag that year. Only the man Queen had spotted scouting for sheep was much older than that.
By the third week of October, Queen finally caught up with the man and his 27-year-old son. He warned them that, in Wyoming, it’s illegal to exchange licenses. The person with the tag has to shoot the animal.
“I started watching them after that,” Queen said.
“I followed them around for three days and finally, the day before I caught them, I watched them put a stalk on a ram on Windy Mountain and at no time during the hunt did the man’s son have the rifle in his hands.”
Queen drew on his 15 years as a game warden and knew what was going to happen. The next day he followed them high into the mountains in Sunlight Basin, briefly following the wrong tracks. When he found them again he had to run a half a mile up a steep grade to see them with a spotting scope.
Then he watched, from 2,000 yards below, as the father positioned his rifle and turned his head to check all around him. Satisfied he was alone, the man shot a ram.
Queen waited for them to clean and pack the ram out of the mountains before he and another game warden arrested the men. The father briefly tried to proclaim his innocence, but after a night in the Cody detention center, he and his son pleaded guilty to the crime.
The father had applied for sheep tags in the past with no luck. In 2007, he decided to apply for his son as well and double his odds.
Not many people draw tags for bighorn sheep. This year, only 20 licenses were allocated in Hunt Area 1 near Cody. If people could transfer licenses, people could sell them, which would quickly make bighorn sheep hunting in Wyoming only a rich man’s sport, Queen said.
Charged on Wyoming’s trophy statute for trophy big game violations and accessory to the statute, the men were each fined $5,000, another $15,000 in restitution and the father forfeited his $6,000 rifle. They also both lost their hunting privileges for five years.
“There are about 50 district game wardens in the state and you would be surprised the guys that are out there sitting and watching,” he said.
“With a little experience knowing how people will act, it doesn’t take long to put things together.”
Don’t lie to your friends
The typical game warden case just doesn’t exist.
In more than 30 years as a Wyoming game warden, Cokeville warden Neil Hymas, 56, has seen just about everything. Yet sometimes he’s still surprised.
He’s had wives anonymously turn their husbands in for poaching, some collecting the reward, some not.
He’s had people insist Hymas was confused and didn’t know where he was and others tell him that 10 miles inside the Wyoming state line is still considered Utah.
But this case was especially memorable.
Two years ago, a city police officer in Cokeville pulled over a man for a traffic violation only to see blood spatters all over his shirt. In coolers in the back of the man’s car was meat cut crudely off its bones. The man told the officer it was an elk. It wasn’t elk season in Wyoming.
When Hymas arrived, the Utah man explained he’d purchased the cow elk from a ranch in Star Valley, Idaho, only he didn’t have a receipt or an interstate game license.
Then Hymas noticed a set of elk antlers from a six-point bull.
The man said he’d bought them from a taxidermist and hadn’t taken them home, yet.
It all seemed strange until Hymas remembered Utah’s early archery season.
“I asked if he was going to a camp in Utah to meet his friends,” he said.
“I said you’re going to tell your friends you shot a six-point bull with your bow.”
The man nodded.
That day he drove from Ogden, Utah, to Idaho to spend $800 on an elk already killed and hung in a garage. He cut the meat from the elk’s bones and put it in a cooler.
The man planned to camp that night in Utah and, when his buddies joined him three days later, he would show them a six-point rack and boned-out meat.
“This shows the level that some guys will go to in order to be successful for their friends,” Hymas said.
Hymas called the rancher in Star Valley to confirm where the elk came from, took the antlers for verification and ticketed the man for transporting big game parts in Wyoming without a license or permit.
“He found out the hard way that lying to your buddies was not the best way to earn their respect,” Hymas said.
Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or firstname.lastname@example.org.