Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

The 4,000-plus citations are small part of a conservation officer’s story

CPOs Eric Manker and David Ray assisted citizens of New Athens during the devastating December 2015 flood. (Photo by Gretchen Steele)

In the last few weeks, southern Illinois residents have been rocked by the release of information regarding several significant arrests and the completion of a very large case in Hamilton County.

All too often, I feel that the general outdoor enthusiast views Conservation Police Officers (CPOs) in a less than favorable light. People refer to them as “fish cops” and “Mr. Green Jeans.” Oddly, it seems those denigrating the CPOs are often the most vocal about “Backing the Blue” and supporting law enforcement. The irony in those instances does not escape me.

I’ve always been a strong supporter of our CPOs and the jobs they are tasked with performing. I’ve long considered them a safety net – not just for me as an outdoor enthusiast but also for our natural resources. We increasingly see utter disregard for the rules, regulations, and laws in place to protect our valuable resources.

We need the CPOs to defend them. We also need the CPOs to protect us. While “regular law enforcement officers” are certainly there to help if we find ourselves in a tricky, sticky situation in the great outdoors, it’s the CPOs that will come to our rescue on the water,
in the woods, the forests, and the fields.

A quick visit to the DNR Office of Law Enforcement website can give you a
good idea of the work that is often performed. When visiting the
website, simply click on the Activity Reports.

These reports provide a snapshot of our CPOs’ daily work. The information can also be found here in Illinois Outdoor News in the “Cuffs and Collars” section of
each issue. Not all CPO activities are included in these reports, and
the published reports only represent some of the events the OLE handled
during that time.

It seems fitting that several significant arrests and case completions
have been announced at the end of the year and toward the end of the
hunting seasons. The recently announced St. Clair County and Hamilton
County cases both send a clear message: Illinois isn’t going to tolerate
any scofflaws regarding our natural resources. It sends a clear message
that no matter your social standing, political bend, or state of
residence, you will be punished if you blatantly break conservation laws
in Illinois.

In some cases, that punishment will be very costly, as was seen in the Hamilton
County case. In the Hamilton County case, fines and civil penalties were
assessed, totaling $110,600. And $99,500 of the penalties have been
awarded directly to the Conservation Police Operations fund. All
firearms, crossbows, and unlawfully harvested animals were seized and
forfeited to DNR.

It’s hard to put a specific number on the significant, time-consuming cases
handled each year. Jed Whitchurch, director of the DNR Office of Law
Enforcement, explained: “The number of large, time-consuming
investigations varies yearly. It is challenging to average out based on
the state’s size and the actual criteria to define a sizeable,
time-consuming investigation.

“The most common types of investigations completed by CPOs are hunting, and
fishing-related violations dealing with unlawful taking that are often
associated with permit/ license violations. CPOs also investigate
commercial violations such as commercial fishing and other
commercialized activities. They conduct accident investigations
involving snowmobiling, boating, and hunting.”

It’s clear that plenty of warnings and citations get written. According to
the DNR Division of Law Enforcement, between Jan. 1, 2022, and Dec. 14,
2022, a total of 4,044 citations were issued.

All citations are then placed in the appropriate court system. Once in the criminal justice
system, plea agreements can be made. Of course, sometimes cases are
dismissed, or not-guilty verdicts are issued. This can lower the number
of guilty findings and prosecution rates in relation to the number of
citations issued.

Perhaps that’s the most frustrating part for outdoor enthusiasts who do follow
the rules. Rules are rules, so we follow them. Then when unethical
outdoorsmen and women flagrantly flaunt those rules, the perception is
that nothing ever happens to the rule breakers. Or, at best, charges get
pleaded down or dismissed if local prosecuting attorneys even elect to
take up the case.

Far too often, I hear the refrain, “ . . . yeah, great, they got caught, but
nothing will ever come of it.” That’s where we, as responsible
sportsmen and women, come into play. Take the time to let the
prosecuting attorney for the county of occurrence know that fish and
wildlife crimes are seri ous and, as such, deserve to be vigorously
investigated and charged. Our CPOs have done the investigative work and
are confident that the need for formal charging exists. Prosecute them

You have a voice and should use it. Be courteous, be concise, and communicate
pleasantly and respectfully with law enforcement entities and
prosecutors’ offices to express the importance of natural resource
protection. Express to your legislators the importance of stiff
penalties for the more heinous of natural resource crimes.

If we don’t set an example by following the rules and communicating with
legislators, law enforcement, and criminal justice systems about our
concerns, who will? The deer, duck, turkeys, and timber can’t advocate
for themselves. It’s up to us.

“Sportswomen and men can best support the DNR by practicing lawful and safe
practices outdoors,” Whitechurch said. “They can assist by being
vigilant of violations and reporting those violations to their local
CPO. It is important to note that our prosecutors throughout the state
often carry a heavy workload. They work hard to seek justice and work
well with the DNR Office of Law Enforcement. Support for the OLE is
valued and appreciated.”

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