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On the opening morning of Colorado’s rifle pronghorn season in October, one of many hunters roaming the undulating, wide-open terrain in Eleven Mile State Park near Hartsel witnessed a series of events he found troubling — and possibly evidence of a crime.
First, he noticed two people stalking a pronghorn herd in the vicinity, though only one of them carried a rifle. That individual fired once, then changed angles and fired again — each time appearing to down an animal. As the hunter approached the pair, they appeared to suddenly veer away as if to avoid him. Later, he found a doe lying lifeless, fully intact but for a gunshot wound while, perhaps 100 yards away, he spotted the carcass of another doe partially stripped of its meat.
Suspicious, he called in a report to Colorado Parks and Wildlife that found its way to Ian Petkash, a district wildlife manager who patrols over 590 square miles of picturesque terrain within Park County out of his base in Lake George. It added to an already busy caseload.
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“This year was far and away the busiest year I’ve had,” Petkash says, “especially for egregious cases, felony-level cases. I don’t have an explanation on why this year was so bad. I’ve kind of wracked my brain trying to find a pattern.”
Poaching, or illegally hunting game or fish, can take many different forms, such as killing animals out of season, or without a valid license, or through illegal or unethical means like shooting them at night or baiting them. It can include shooting them for fun or target practice or, as happened five years ago in Colorado, shooting mountain goats in the head at point-blank range.
It can involve illegal kills for the purpose of harvesting animal parts that might have value in international markets. It can ignore or reject the basic hunting ethic of harvesting an animal’s meat, instead leaving it to rot.
Petkash discovered one common thread in many of his poaching cases: the willful destruction of big game animals, a felony under Colorado law. It generally occurs in one of two ways: shooting and intentionally leaving the entire animal to waste without harvesting its meat, or just claiming the trophy parts, such as the head and hide, and leaving the rest.
Full toll of poaching elusive
On average, Colorado wildlife officers write 2,600-2,700 tickets per year for various forms of poaching, and each citation can include multiple counts, says Ty Petersburg, assistant chief of law enforcement for CPW.
The true toll of poaching on Colorado’s vast public and private lands, much of which goes undetected, is notoriously difficult to gauge. By some estimates, poaching harvests as much wildlife as legitimate hunting.
“But it’s a very difficult thing to determine,” Petersburg says, “because of the nature of the violation.”
Efforts to curb poaching have placed an increasing load on the state’s district wildlife managers like Petkash, whose duties encompass everything from checking hunting and fishing licenses to answering calls on encroaching bears to running community programs in schools, fishing clinics and hunter education classes. It also has meant expanding law enforcement capabilities to meet the moment: CPW personnel even specialize in social media investigations and partner with federal authorities to pursue more complex cases that extend beyond state or national borders.
The pronghorn incident near Hartsel, on treeless grassland, appeared to cross the line. Not only did the abandoned, intact carcass fit the “willful destruction” description, but the second pronghorn reportedly killed by the same hunter would have exceeded the legal limit.
Petkash, a 34-year-old lifelong outdoorsman who had trained his ambition on becoming a wildlife officer since he was barely a teen, responded to the scene with his K-9 partner, Samson, an imposing 5-year-old Belgian Malinois equally suited to a life of outdoor investigation.
As Petkash processed the scene, he directed Samson to what at first glance appeared to be a needle-in-a-haystack search for spent cartridges that could prove crucial evidence in matching a suspect’s rifle to the kill. The dog soon sniffed one out.
Samson, a Belgian Malinois trained to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife investigate poaching, sniffs for bullet casings in a field while leading District Wildlife Manager Ian Petkash during a training session on Jan. 22 near Lake George. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Petkash carefully expanded his search for other hunters in the area, mindful that any of those he ran into on this relatively crowded opening day could just as easily be a suspect as a potential witness. After coming up empty from a half-dozen encounters, he happened upon a father introducing his 12-year-old son to his first hunt.
“A gold mine,” Petkash recalls.
They had witnessed the incident. When Petkash asked the father if he happened to see the hunters’ vehicle, he got lucky again. Not only could he describe the vehicle, but he remembered the first three letters of the license plate because it was a combination common to where he lives. After some digging, Petkash had a full license plate linked to the make and model of the vehicle, whose registered owner did indeed have a hunting license.
“So now,” he says, “we were onto something.”
Petkash soon determined that the woman no longer lived in Colorado, but had recently moved to Florida with her husband. He found a cell phone number for the woman and eventually connected with her as the couple drove through Kansas on their way home to Florida.
Petkash contacted law enforcement in Kansas and arranged for an officer to meet the woman at a gas station just off Interstate 35. That officer found a remorseful suspect. Within hours of the incident, on a stretch of highway hundreds of miles away, Petkash had tracked down the poacher and helped secure a confession.
Cases don’t always resolve so quickly. But because of the suspect’s cooperation, the felony charge of willful destruction of wildlife was reduced during plea negotiations to a misdemeanor count of careless hunting, which — combined with charges of unlawful take of one pronghorn and waste of wildlife — netted nearly $3,000 in fines and possible suspension of her hunting license, not only in Colorado but in nearly every other state due to reciprocal arrangements.
A troubling fall trend
Last fall, Colorado’s poaching cases piled up disturbingly fast.
In early October, a mule deer buck was killed by a rifle round and abandoned sometime during the overnight hours about 5 miles outside of Craig, prompting Colorado Parks and Wildlife to put out the word in hope of jogging the memory of a witness.
A couple weeks later, officers executed search warrants at two houses in Colorado Springs and another in Fremont County and seized a vehicle, firearms and wildlife parts. The operation, part of an investigation of poaching in Park County, resulted in three arrests on felony and misdemeanor charges of willful destruction of elk, failure to prepare game meat for human consumption, hunting without a valid license and other infractions.
At the end of October, between Gateway and Grand Junction, a rock climber reported a desert bighorn ram had been shot and left off the side of a highway. Investigation determined the ram had been killed at least 24 hours earlier — a bullet was recovered from behind the animal’s front shoulder. Not only was the ram shot and the carcass abandoned, but the incident appeared to have happened before the Nov. 1 start of the legal bighorn sheep hunting season in that area.
From the end of October to mid-November, eight cases in San Miguel County involved mule deer or elk killed and left to rot. All but one of the instances contained a disturbing detail: They were close to roads that would have given relatively easy access to vehicles to transport legally harvested animals. The other case revealed signs that parties abandoned efforts to retrieve a cow elk.
Mark Lamb, a CPW area wildlife manager out of Fairplay who supervises Petkash, knows that at least anecdotally the poachers seemed to be out in greater force than usual in his area that covers Clear Creek, Gilpin and Park counties and the western half of Jefferson County.
“I’m in year 37 of doing this,” Lamb says. “I don’t know what switch got flipped, and the majority of cases were Ian’s, but we had somewhere between 15 and 17 different arrest and search warrants. He had a revolving door into the judge’s chamber.”
One incident Petkash is pursuing took him to Tennessee and Florida to do interviews. More and more, poaching cases can mushroom as investigators dig deeper with forensic tools like DNA sampling (for instance, testing can link an abandoned carcass to a trophy hanging on a poacher’s wall) and even uncover instances of license fraud by out-of-state hunters.
Colorado residents, defined as living continuously in the state for six months and claiming the state as their primary abode, are allocated a higher percentage of hunting licenses. So, especially for highly coveted licenses like bighorn sheep — hunters sometimes wait 20 or 30 years to win the draw — Coloradans have a much better chance of obtaining one.
Cost figures in as a secondary concern, CPW’s Petersburg says. A bighorn sheep license runs a Colorado resident $320; for a nonresident the price jumps to almost $2,300.
“But money is secondary,” he adds. “Opportunity is the big factor.”
Petersburg doesn’t see the volume of poaching cases diminishing — but he has seen the style of poaching change over time. There’s more money involved now than ever before, he explains, including from the illegal sale of wildlife that he says has “ballooned” and can go international at times and certainly across state lines.
That’s why one of his investigators is a dedicated member of a federal task force and has authority to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That officer accompanied Petkash to Tennessee and Florida on separate cases and now is heading to Texas and then California to pursue others.
“We have all of those cases in the queue right now,” Petersburg says. “The other part of it is hunting is still big business. Unfortunately, whenever you get money involved, you get greed and you get people willing to push the envelope.”
From a staffing standpoint, CPW has been hard pressed to grow with Colorado’s booming population over the past 20 years or so. In 2001, the agency hired 17 new full-time positions, bringing the active corps of wildlife officers in the field close to 150 statewide. Then there was a 20-year drought broken only recently with six additional hires, including a full time social media investigator, as poachers often can’t resist the urge to post their latest trophies online.
“We just haven’t been able to keep up,” Petersburg says. “The demands of the job on our field folks is so varied and complex, much more than it used to be, that it’s honestly pretty difficult for folks to give the focus we would like to see them have on these different cases.”
By way of illustration, he pulls out his smartphone and activates an app designed to log calls for assistance with encroaching bears, though more recently it has been adapted to include calls concerning mountain lions and even moose. Masses of red and yellow dots populate the screen showing just the Front Range calls for service to deal with those animals. Customer service and education duties get tacked onto actual law enforcement work, stretching an already thin group of wildlife managers.
“We still have cases where people will shoot 10 or 12 elk and we have to go clean up that mess and go find them, or they’ll shoot something else and cut the heads off,” Petersburg says. “All of that stuff still exists. It hasn’t gone away. But we’re now having to add these different facets of our investigations that weren’t there 15 years ago.”
CPW’s 10-person investigations unit includes workers with specialized niches: forensic analysis, digital forensics, cyber investigations, statewide fraud investigations, covert operations. Most other states employ two- or three-person investigative groups, but Colorado’s is more robust, Petersburg says, along with states like Ohio, Texas, California and Florida.
Petersburg notes that his cyber investigator has briefed him on the volume and variety of wildlife-related goods and services that pop up in the online marketplace, from rare animals to sketchy outfitting ventures.
“I’ve had crazy things come across my computer like: ‘Would you like to buy an African penguin today?’” he says. “That market exists out there, and so it really ties to this larger global market for wildlife trafficking.”
Pronghorn, bighorn sheep and elk all are at risk of being poached in Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Melding science with people skills
Scott Murdoch guides his Colorado Parks and Wildlife pickup west out of Evergreen, eventually leaving pavement to head up the narrow road to the Mount Evans Wildlife Area. In stretches of open space, the new snow is pocked with evidence of deer migration to an area officially closed each year from Jan. 1 to mid-June.
He stops to unlock the gate and then winds his way uphill toward the CPW facility that includes a large walk-in freezer. He’s trekked out here to perform a chemical test on an animal carcass, a potential willful-destruction case. He unlocks the freezer and steps inside among the specimens ranging from a mule deer’s velvety antlers to evidence from cold cases involving bear gall bladders and mountain lions.
He finds the rigid portion of a carcass he delivered here days earlier, having already weighed and photographed the body parts and taken specimens for DNA sampling. He carries it outside, drops the tailgate on his truck and rests the animal flesh on the bed.
Tearing apart the packaging on a test kit that detects lead residue, Murdoch applies the chemical to a portion of the carcass. The test will help determine if there’s evidence of a bullet wound that could provide more information about the abandoned and animal-ravaged carcass he discovered days earlier, when he followed the flight of scavenger birds to find the remains in a steep draw.
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He tests the sample three times with negative results — just covering bases on his investigation. “That’s good information,” Murdoch says.
The science of unraveling potential poaching melds with other skills that help Murdoch, 37, augment his background with wildlife and conservation degrees from Colorado State University. His early interest in research soon gave way to wildlife management and, as an avid hunter himself, he liked how the job of wildlife officer addressed biology, public education and law enforcement. For the past eight years he has worked out of a home base in Conifer.
Much of his district includes a tight mix of public and private property, which he says leads to one of the more prevalent violations he sees: baiting bear, deer and elk for the purpose of killing them.
“It’s not like hunting in more western parts of the state where you can hunt on National Forest and hike for days and never be on private property,” Murdoch explains, noting that by contrast the private parcels sometimes encourage residents to entice the wildlife to come to them. “And the easy way to do that is to go put a pile of corn or bait or whatever it may be out on your property. And now those animals have a reason to come onto your property.”
Some folks lure animals just to watch them. But any wildlife taken by baiting becomes illegal, so animals reported killed on smaller parcels raise natural questions — and that kind of situation is “one that we deal with quite a bit,” Murdoch says.
In the past few years, he’s also been involved in a lot of residency cases, where a hunter may have falsely claimed Colorado residency for purposes of obtaining a hunting license. Murdoch points to the case of a former Colorado resident who moved to Georgia, but for three years continued to claim Colorado residency to score hunting licenses.
The case began as a tip. (CPW runs an anti-poaching program called Operation Game Thief to reward whistleblowers.) It eventually mushroomed to include search warrants for Facebook and Google to obtain data from the suspect’s social media accounts. Thousands of pages of information from YouTube, Instagram and Facebook produced evidence not only of the fraudulent licenses, but of the animals killed illegally under those licenses. The suspect documented his hunts extensively on social media, which streamlined the investigation.
In 2021, he pleaded guilty in Adams County to 15 separate counts involving licenses and illegal possession of a trophy mule deer and bull elk. The judge sentenced him to two years of supervised probation and five years’ suspension from hunting, fishing and trapping privileges both in Colorado and the other 48 states in the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. He also had to pay $500 to Operation Game Thief and over $41,000 in fines and court costs. A large share of those fines reflected changes to the law resulting from what was perhaps Colorado’s best-known poaching case.
I’ve had crazy things come across my computer like: ‘Would you like to buy an African penguin today?’ That market exists out there, and so it really ties to this larger global market for wildlife trafficking.
— Ty Petersburg, assistant chief of law enforcement for CPW
In November 1995, a famously popular, 1,000-pound bull elk, nicknamed Samson by locals in the Estes Park area where he roamed unafraid of humans, almost like a town mascot, was illegally killed at the entrance to the YMCA of the Rockies with a crossbow by a poacher in search of trophies to sell. The man was found and prosecuted.
And while the sentence was harsh for its time and wide-ranging — the Lakewood man got 90 days in jail as well as fines, community service plus restrictions on both owning weapons and driving — the backlash to the crime also soon reverberated in the state legislature. In 1998, lawmakers enacted a range of more severe fines for big-game poaching that became known as the “Samson law.”
From 2011 through 2020, 142 Samson law charges were brought, according to CPW’s annual report. Fines were paid in 23 cases — about 18% of the time. More often, Samson charges, which can add from $4,000 in penalties for pronghorn with at least 14-inch antlers to $25,000 in the case of certain bighorn sheep, are used as leverage in plea bargains. Fines collected from the Samson law are funneled back to the town, city or county where the arrest was made or citation issued.
CPW’s Petersburg says the “tools are in place” for consequences to reflect the seriousness of wildlife violations, but that results often vary depending on the judicial district and that office’s familiarity with Title 33 in Colorado’s statutes that address parks and wildlife.
“As we’ve urbanized, societally, there’s fewer people that are involved with or understand the hunting world,” he says. “It really depends on where your judicial district is and what’s important to them. They’re overworked, too. They have these incredible dockets, and they don’t always understand why poaching cases are important. Whereas you might go to Rio Blanco County or Moffat County where hunting is very much a part of their cultural heritage and their economy and those prosecutors will handle cases much differently.”
For wildlife officers in the field like Murdoch, success in rooting out poaching cases can turn on relationships developed over time, whether with law-abiding citizens or even those who’ve run afoul of hunting laws in the past. Murdoch figures his experience as a hunter — rifle, bow and muzzleloader — puts him in a solid position to empathize with others and understand how circumstances can put hunters in difficult situations.
He knows one family that historically had run-ins with wildlife authorities but eventually became a vigilant ally. He also has cultivated a casual friendship with a man who rang up a 30-year hunting suspension and more than $30,000 in fines for various violations, yet now harbors no ill will.
“But he’s also one of the few that’s taking responsibility for his actions. Not all do,” Murdoch says. “Some folks think it’s your fault because they got caught. There’s different types of people out there, for sure.”
A K-9 colleague sharpens detective skills
On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, Ian Petkash pulls his pickup truck to the side of the unpaved road just south of Eleven Mile Canyon and surveys a steep hillside. Making his way a short distance up the slope, he checks the wind direction. Then he drops two spent rifle cartridges on the ground, where they all but disappear in the dormant brown grass dusted with what’s left of a recent snowfall.
Returning to the truck, he opens the rear driver’s-side door. Samson bounds dutifully out, the dog ready for his next test in the weekly training that serves as a refresher course for his work finding anything from ammo to animal remains that potentially could prove helpful as evidence.
Earlier, Petkash put his K-9 partner through his paces searching the interior of a building and an abandoned vehicle, and both times he quickly zeroed in on the hidden items, a bobcat paw or quail remains sealed in a plastic bag. When the dog exhibits behavior that tells his handler he has detected the scent of the prize, Petkash tosses him a blue squeaky rubber ball that Samson adores.
Now, he leads the dog up the hill and then guides him in a zigzag pattern across the landscape, always heading into the light breeze. Samson, who underwent extensive training more than three years ago, is certified to detect nine specific scents — elk, deer, pronghorn, mountain lion, waterfowl, to name a few.
Samson, a Belgian Malinois, trains with CPW District Wildlife Manager Ian Petkash in Lake George on Jan. 22. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
At the end of the 15-foot lead, he darts back and forth on this “article search” — seeking something other than animal parts — aiming to reveal the location of the spent cartridges. When he catches a whiff, his movement brackets the location, back and forth, until he finally stands still and stares at his target. Out comes the blue rubber ball, augmented by some affectionate pets, as the dog’s reward.
Before acquiring Samson about four years ago, Petkash felt that a K-9 was an important feature missing from his toolbox. He wanted a dog that could do scent work, but also help with the law enforcement and particularly bear conflict, which is a major part of his job.
He focused on finding a Belgian Malinois because the breed excels at law enforcement work and has no qualms about chasing bears. (“He lives for that,” Petkash says of their work discouraging bears from human interaction.) Petkash procured a $10,000 grant from a foundation operated by former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to purchase Samson from a Texas breeder and train him.
They’ve been a team ever since, patrolling as colleagues and engaging in a more relaxed relationship at home. Although not trained in apprehension or “bite work,” Samson provides an imposing layer of protection, which has proved especially helpful in relatively remote areas where backup could be an hour or more away.
“Having that presence there 100% has taken some pretty bad dudes that otherwise may have become combative and … they didn’t,” Petkash says.
But Samson — named in honor of the famous elk from Estes Park — also adds to his work history by sniffing out evidence as he did in the October case of the two pronghorn does when he “performed a stop-and-stare on a spent, nickel-plated, .270 Winchester cartridge,” according to the arrest affidavit.
Though Samson’s work finding the spent cartridge ultimately did not figure into the final disposition of the case, it would have provided a connection to the hunter’s rifle if she had not admitted what she’d done.
“If she hadn’t confessed,” Petkash says, “that would have been the key link that really would have resulted in a conviction. Samson came up huge on that one.”