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Operation Game Thief Adds Technology to the Battle Against Wildlife Crime
AUSTIN, Texas — Typical Crimestoppers programs assist law enforcement officers only by offering rewards to the public for information leading to the arrest and conviction of targeted law breakers. But with broadened authority from the Texas Legislature last year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s privately funded Operation Game Thief (OGT) program is now going a step further.
OGT, Texas’ Wildlife Crimestoppers program, is now working to provide game wardens with the latest in technologically advanced tools to assist in both the curtailment and prosecution of wildlife resource crimes.
The recently concluded Operation Pescador, targeting illegal commercial fishing on Falcon Reservoir and the Rio Grande River, is a good example of the immediate benefit of the implementation of this technology: 28 individuals were arrested, and 20 boats and motors and more than 18 miles of gill net and were confiscated.
The tremendous success of this operation relied, in great part, on the ability of game wardens, coming from around the state, to effectively navigate in unfamiliar territory and especially on unknown, international boundary waters.
This navigation was possible through utilization of Global Positioning referenced maps, printed on-site with sophisticated equipment provided through a grant from OGT.
In other parts of the state, cases that previously would have been rejected by prosecutors because of unclear county boundaries are now being accepted, and successfully prosecuted, because of utilization of this same technology.
In light of recent legislation requiring accreditation of any lab submitting DNA evidentiary analysis for court proceedings, OGT has provided a partial-funding grant for specialized equipment necessary to achieve accreditation for TPWD’s forensics lab. When that accreditation is achieved, the lab will be the only accredited state wildlife forensics lab in the U.S., a major achievement.
Other OGT grant-provided technological inroads for game wardens include the use of side-scan sonar devices to locate and recover drowning victims, lost or abandoned equipment, and even crucial evidence hidden beneath the water’s surface.
“Drownings are tragic, and sometimes days, or even weeks of searching are required before the lost loved one can be returned to the family,” said Col. Pete Flores, director of law enforcement for TPWD. “This technology has the potential of helping our officers recover the victim much sooner, easing the family’s burden, as well as freeing the officers to handle other duties.”
Thermal imagery is the next tool coming to the warden’s arsenal in the battle against violations such as night hunting, the use of illegal nets and traps in public waters and the over-harvest of aquatic resources for commercial purposes, especially in Texas coastal waters.
“In other arenas, this ‘see in the dark’ technology has proven invaluable both in aiding apprehensions and as an evidentiary record in court proceedings,” said Flores. “It also provides the added dimension of enhanced officer safety. It is the modern-day technology necessary to keep up with the bad guys, and we’re glad to have it.”
The 11-member Operation Game Thief committee, which administers the OGT Fund, has authorized rewards of more than $200,000 for information about game and fish law violations since its inception in 1981.
“Clearly the public has been proven to be the vital link in the on-going battle against the exploitation of our wildlife resources,” said Buddy Turner, assistant chief of wildlife enforcement for TPWD. “This is evidenced by the thousands of calls to the 800 792-GAME Reward Hotline, and the private contributions that make it possible to finally put this technology in the hands of the wardens, albeit on a limited scale.”
The application of proven advanced technology to help combat the poaching problem is only a matter of money, Turner said, and the non-profit OGT continues to seek those dollars through both individual and corporate commitments.
“The Committee is pleased to be an integral part of the effort to field new technology,” said OGT Committee Chairman Ray Bailey, a Houston businessman. “Our hope is that the corporate sector will become more involved with us, either through direct donation or through participation in our fundraisers like the Bandana Ball at the Hilton Post Oak Hotel on June 10, or the Claystoppers Sporting Clays event next April in Austin.
Information on both events is available by calling April Mendez, (512) 389-4381.
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