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New technology challenging wildlife law enforcers

Hamilton County Wildlife Officer Joe McSpadden uses a high-tech night vision scope as he takes aim at a deer during a biological collection research project. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The officer's truck was backed into a logging road, well hidden from anyone driving by the remote winter wheat field. It was about 2 am when he heard the shot. In the cold crisp air the sound of the high-powered rifle echoed through the darkness.

The officer called for nearby backup and eased out of his hiding place. It was a moonlit night so it was easy for the officer to roll down the dirt road without headlights, slowly approaching the area where the shot rang out. Up ahead in the glare of headlights turned into the edge of a field he could see two men dragging the dead deer. Before they could toss it in the back of their truck he had hit his blue lights, gunned the engine and slid to a stop, blocking the truck in. The officer raced to the driver's door grabbing the rifle resting on the truck's seat. The two poachers knew they'd been had.

It is a scene that has been repeated many times since Tennessee's first game warden was appointed in 1903. For many years wildlife law enforcers ran major details - spreading numerous officers out across a widespread area and then putting airplanes up at night to patrol the multi-county area watching for illegal spotlighters from high above. But nowadays, game wardens (officially known as wildlife officers), face new challenges enforcing laws to prevent poaching.

In recent years there has been a great proliferation of affordable night-vision scopes and devices... as well as an increasing popularity of noise suppression for firearms. For more advanced poachers the tools that once gave them away to diligent law enforcers - spotlights and very loud rifles - have been replaced. For those who can pay the price there is no need for spotlights and reduced chances that the folks in the house down the road will even hear you shoot.

"Yes, I agree," said Darren Rider, the Law Enforcement Chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "With all this new technology out there it certainly makes things challenging for conservation law enforcement. Technology has created a whole new approach to hunting and fishing – trail cameras and side scan sonar are just a small sample of what’s out there now."

Quality night vision optics or thermal-imaging devices are available for as little as $100. Noise suppressors are still somewhat costly, but a relatively new Tennessee law makes suppressors much easier to buy. Noise suppressors do not totally "silence" firearms as the movies might lead you to believe, especially on high-powered rifles. But they will make them much harder to hear from a distance.

Of course Tennessee law has been modified, adjusting for the new technology. The law forbids anyone from possessing any "electronic light amplifying night vision scope, thermal imaging device or similar devices while in possession of a firearm or archery tackle between sunset and sunrise."

Of course it being illegal and game wardens being able to detect its use are miles apart. Fortunately Chief Rider said the technology doesn't seem to have caught on with poachers, at least not yet.

"There have only been a handful of cases made across the state that involved suppressed firearms and night vision devices," said Chief Rider. "Currently our officers are not getting reports or discovering that these devices are being utilized on a regular or widespread basis."

You have to fight fire with fire - which means wildlife law enforcers have the same tools. Not necessarily noise suppressors but TWRA owns numerous night vision optic devices that aid in gathering biological data and in law enforcement.

"The proliferation of this technology continues to make it affordable. We'll closely monitor this fast paced world of technology and how it can be utilized in the world of hunting," said Chief Rider.

With more than 30 years of service in wildlife and boating law enforcement, Chief Rider has seen lots of changes occur. Reading between the lines, it seems he might miss "the good old days."

"Gone are the days when deer hunters actually went out and scouted for that one white oak tree or persimmon tree that was dropping and the deer were using and that’s what you set up on," he said. "Or think about all those hours and days fishermen spent laboring to build crappie beds and strategically placing them so no one else would ever find them – only for side scan sonar to come along and easily find every tree top and tree stump in the lake."

The world is changing every day. Wildlife law enforcers are changing with it.

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