By Patrick Winderl
It's 10:30 Monday morning, and Shane Reno is hard at work in his office. Sitting behind the wheel of a Dodge 2500 pickup, he is surrounded by the tools of his trade - shotguns, radios, a cell phone, a Global Positioning System unit, coffee thermoses, food, camouflage clothing, spotting scopes and binoculars.
Reno, a game warden with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is on his way to investigate the poaching of antelope. A farmer reported seeing three of the animals shot and abandoned on a county road about 25 miles north of Havre.
Not even 30 seconds after leaving the FWP building east of Havre, Reno's cell phone is ringing off the hook. In rapid succession, people on the other end of the phone relay questions and information. One area rancher asks Reno if he can help him stop deer from raiding his haystacks. A concerned citizen reports seeing an injured goose on his property and wants Reno to help. Another game warden wants to coordinate serving a citation to a convicted felon caught poaching.
Reno deftly handles the calls on the cell phone, a tool he says has changed the way his profession operates.
"The cell phone is right up there with the most important tool that we have," he says. "It just made a huge difference in how we operate. It has coverage that the radio does not."
When the string of phone calls subsides - momentarily - Reno stops at the North Havre Community Services Food Bank to drop off a deer he seized the night before. After catching a man hunting on private property without permission or the proper licenses, Reno confiscated the buck. Not wanting the meat to go to waste, he donated the animal to the food bank.
"Anyone can donate deer to the food bank," he says. "It takes two minutes to do, and that way somebody can benefit from it."
Next, the warden stops to gas up. In the parking lot of Town Pump, he is approached by a hunter who asks Reno to examine a deer he has shot. The man opens the tailgate of his truck to reveal a large buck with a deformity on one of its horns. After a brief glance, Reno assures the man that the buck was healthy, and the deformity was likely the result of an injury years ago.
With the coffee and the gas tank topped off, Reno can focus on the job at hand - locating the poached antelope. He heads north, driving windswept sections of highway where the snow and clouds and fog have obscured vision, leaving only the black asphalt for contrast against a whitewashed world. Turning west on a dirt road, Reno drives another 6 miles to where the shooting was reported.
Finding the downed animals is not an easy task. The venture has been complicated by the continuous snowfall. Drifts 2 to 3 feet high have accumulated along the dirt road he is patrolling, and a low-hanging dense fog makes finding anything nearly impossible.
After calling the farmer who reported the shooting to clarify the location, Reno gets a break. He spots a coyote loping across a low ridge, a tell-tale sign of an animal carcass. Sure enough, resting near a fence along the road a 100 yards away is the body of a buck antelope, nearly covered in snow.
Gritting his teeth against strong gusts of wind and subzero temperatures, the game warden leaves the warmth and protection of the pickup to examine the scene. The three antelope have fallen along a fence line, two near each other, another about 50 feet away. Investigating poaching is part common sense and part science, Reno explains as he grabs a camera.
The first antelope the game warden examines has been partially eaten by scavengers, making it difficult to determine whether the animal was shot. Reno carefully photographs the scene, taking photos from different angles. Shoe prints or tire tracks that may have provided clues to the identity of the shooter have been erased by the elements, leaving Reno with little to work with. Removing a metal detector from the truck, he scans the carcass for bullets.
Nothing. The machine is silent.
Undeterred, Reno makes his way to the second animal. This antelope, a doe, has what appears to be a large puncture wound in its flank. It has not been touched by the coyotes.
Almost immediately, Reno decides the wound was not caused by a bullet.
"See how it tore along the edges," he says, pointing to the hole in the animal's side. "A bullet would have been a lot cleaner. This looks like a blunt-force wound."
Reno adeptly cuts into the doe's flank to further examine the wound. As he thought, the puncture is shallow. A rifle bullet would have penetrated further, he said, and the blood would have pooled differently.
After looking at two of the animals, Reno is convinced they were hit by a truck, likely on purpose. One antelope would have been written off as an accident, but three indicates the driver intentionally ran them over.
The game warden takes a look at the third antelope, another buck. After taking photographs, Reno examines what appears to be a wound at the base of the animal's neck. Making an incision with a hunting knife, he finds a pocket of blood that appears to be caused by a bullet. A little probing and he retrieves a copper bullet fragment.
After taking the bullet as evidence, Reno says he is confident he knows what happened. Likely a person driving a truck came upon the antelope trapped between the fences on the road and chased them down. After intentionally hitting them with the truck, the driver got out, shot at least one of them in head, and left the bodies for the coyotes.
According to Reno, game wardens only investigate about 10 to 15 percent of poachings. Most go unreported, he says. Still, the number of calls Reno receives is high.
"It happens too much," he says. "This time of year is by far the most hectic. The poaching is pretty constant and sometimes overwhelming."
Reno acknowledges that the investigation will only lead to charges if he receives a tip about the poacher. If the guilty party is found, he or she will face a felony, he says. Most tips that wardens receive come from the TipMont program, Reno says.
"People can stay anonymous," he says. "TipMont is a good program. A lot of the time it helps us find out who did what."
Another tool wardens use to catch poachers is a little unusual - a radio-controlled deer. Extremely lifelike, the dummy is placed in a field where wardens control the head and tail movements to trick poachers into shooting it. When wardens bust the would-be hunter for shooting out of season, the reaction is usually the same, Reno says.
"It's kind of like 'Oh, man,'" he says. "Severe disappointment."
After leaving the three antelope for the coyotes, Reno explains that the meat may have been spoiled over the last several days, rendering it useless to the food bank.
The next order of business is to drop off blood meal for a rancher south of Havre. The rancher reported that deer have been getting into his haystacks, and asked Reno for several bags of the meal, which tends to scare deer away because of its scent.
The problem is a common occurrence in the winter, when deer are searching for easy food, Reno says, adding that neatly stacked hay provides a tempting treat for hungry deer.
"Deer are opportunists, just like we are," he says. "They are going to take the path of least resistance."
After the drop off, Reno is ready to return to the office. The sun is setting, and it's time to wade through a stack of monthly reports.
When Reno is not in the field, he spends much of his time investigating other hunting violations. One of the most time-consuming tasks is trying to curb the number of people who unlawfully obtain resident hunting permits, he said. A limited number of out-of-state permits are issued each year, and some people try to beat the system by falsely claiming residency, he says.
The cost of permits is a factor, he says. For instance, a big-game tag for Montana residents costs $58 compared with $628 for out-of-state residents.
Once a tip is received about a violation, Reno searches state driver's license databases to build a case.
"A lot of times, people violate residency laws because the opportunity for visitors to hunt from out of state is limited," he says. "This year there were only 11,000 out-of-state deer and elk tags, so there's a motivation to fraudulently get a resident's permit."
Reno has been a game warden for 12 years. He has worked in Hill County for the last decade. He graduated from Montana State University-Billings with a degree in biological science before accepting a job with FWP. He is one of two wardens stationed in Havre.
Reno says he feels a connection with the land he works.
"I love the wildlife. I like being in the outdoors. I learn something new about every day, it seems," he says. "Our job as game warden is so diverse. There are so many different things to do."
The strange schedule game wardens work is about the only thing Reno doesn't always like about his job.
"I never really have the same days off," he says. "Sometimes it gets old, especially when you've got something planned, and then you get the phone call for something you need to respond to right away. My wife and I have learned not to make plans."
The most enjoyable aspect of being a game warden is interacting with people, Reno says.
"I really enjoy dealing with the people," he says. "Ninety percent of them are great to deal with, especially landowners and sportsmen - especially the ones that are concerned with what's going on with natural resources."