Some joy rides serious offenses, says wildlife officer

Published 5:40 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tony Hill grows soybeans, small grains and hay on 35 acres of bottomland off River Road near the state line.
Many mornings toward the end of winter he drives out into the field on his tractor only to find deep, circular paths rutted into the soil.
“What I have a problem with is the donut cutters spinning circles and cutting ruts in my field. It makes it really difficult to cross in my equipment – it just about breaks an axle,” Hill said.
On one particular January evening, wildlife officer Toby Jenkins caught some perpetrators of the ruts – a carload of teenagers – in action.
The driver of the vehicle, 17-year-old McKenzie McDowell, said in a letter (see p. 6) that she gave into peer pressure and didn’t consider the damage she might have done to the field.
Jenkins said the destruction of farmer’s crops or pasture can bring charges up to a Class I felony under N. C. statute 14-141. Felonies prevent a person from ever having the right to vote or possess a firearm, he said.
So, rather than placing a felony charge against a teenager, Jenkins and Hill said they both felt it was better to use the situation as a teaching tool and asked McDowell to write a letter to the editor apologizing for her actions and telling others about the seriousness of what she had done.
“I’ve always thought in the back of my mind what I would do if I caught one of the kids doing this,” Hill said. “But I was 17-18 years old at one time – I’m not going to go and punish these kids to such an extent, but I thought that getting kids to understand the seriousness of the offense would do me a lot more good.”
Hill said his fields are full of deer and he understands people like to look at them, but he said they don’t realize the damage they can do.
Jenkins patrols three counties including Polk.
He said this time of year is his busiest as people go far beyond trying to see deer at night and move to hunting at night and past season.
“We have several fatalities a year, many related to illegal hunting,” Jenkins said. “All the laws we have are for public safety or the safety of wildlife.”
During the deer season, he gets calls weekly from residents who have either seen large lights scanning a field or who have heard guns firing after dark.
Jenkins said typically if someone is hunting legally they know their surroundings. ‘Road hunters’ or ‘spotlighters,’ as he referred to them, don’t take those things into consideration, he said. So, this type of violation causes more problems than just scarring deer.
“A lot of people hear shots at night and we have to determine what kind of shot it was, whether it was fireworks or a high-powered rifle,” Jenkins said. “We’ve even had residences that have been shot into at night from people shooting at a deer through the woods and not realizing there was a house behind the trees.”
Jenkins said individuals caught illegally hunting with spotlights face a Class II misdemeanor.
As a result of being caught spotlighting, a person is typically taken to jail.
Authorities then seize the weapon and often the person’s vehicle. The individual then loses his or her hunting privileges for two years in the state and is fined up to $1,000.
Depending on whether an animal is actually killed, Jenkins said the individual could also be required to pay replacement costs for the wildlife. Jenkins said the replacement fee for a deer is $602, while a wild turkey is $1,000 and a bear $2,000.
This money goes back to the wildlife commission for its programs.
“It’s unethical, it’s immoral,” Jenkins said. “There’s no fair chase in it and we have plenty of deer to hunt legally.”
Jenkins and Hill said they both hope to better educate teens and adults about the damage that can be caused in either the attempt to have a good time or for the sport of an easy target.