GERLACH, Nev. (AP) — Severed deer antlers are resting on the back of a hunter's all-terrain vehicle, and they serve as a trigger for chief game warden Rob Buonamici.
The owner of the ATV is not present, so Buonamici, who works for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, leaves his truck to take a closer look. He's concerned that he's happened upon a vehicle that belongs to a poacher.
Buonamici is 90 minutes north of Gerlach, out of cellphone range and out of sight from the main road. It's Oct. 11, the day before chukar season. Buonamici is out to make sure hunters aren't getting an early start on the popular hunt.
"Anyone home?" he asks.
The hunting season starts in August and goes through Feb. 12. Hunters can harvest mule deer, elk, bears, mountain lions, sheep and waterfowl during that time. Wardens look for poachers masquerading as hunters, in addition to violators of hunting laws.
In Nevada, 31 wardens spread throughout the state patrol hunting lands and nearby areas. Wardens in Nevada are each responsible for patrolling about 3,000 to 3,300 square miles.
Buonamici said the national average is about 900 square miles per warden and that only Alaska has fewer agents monitoring its land. That means that backup is most of the time hours, if not days, away.
"We'll ride along with highway patrol, deputies and the FBI, and they're all like, 'You're suicidal,'" Buonamici told the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://on.rgj.com/Hk4zPZ). "'You're out there by yourself?'"
In a state that annually invests millions in wildlife management and efforts to grow its wildlife population, Buonamici and his colleagues are out in the field protecting that interest every day.
In 2012, Nevada game wardens issued more than 1,000 hunting and fishing citations, which comes with an automatic fine, and more than 2,000 warnings. Buonamici said those were typical totals.
By comparison, the Utah Division of Wildlife reported a combined 4,541 citations and warnings in 2012. Buonamici said that since Utah has more wardens, it issues more citations.
Misdemeanor charges can result in a $50 fine and six months in jail. Felony charges result in up to $30,000 civil penalties. The courts can also seize vehicles, guns and trailers as well as revoke hunting privileges.
The job might not seem dangerous, but it is.
Government wardens die every year doing the same compliance checks that Buonamici is doing in Nevada. No game warden has died in Nevada.
While specific numbers aren't available, it's estimated that at least 100 wardens have been killed nationwide since 1980.
The North American Game Warden Museum said that 289 game wardens have been killed in the U.S. since 1886.
The wardens are the only enforcement officers who respond to people that are armed 99 percent of the time.
In his 33 years with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, Buonamici has helped stop poaching rings in California that were responsible for, among other crimes, taking down state record elk in Ely, a fisherman on the Carson River who was wanted for murder and other criminals with outstanding warrants.
"The best case scenario," Buonamici said, "is they're fishing and they only have a knife."
The day started at 7 a.m. and Buonamici shut down around 10 p.m.
His first encounter was on Surprise Valley Road, just north of Pyramid Lake.
His eyes darted toward a camper trailer parked in what otherwise was uninhabited land.
"Seems a little weird to be out here," Buonamici said.
The warden applied the brakes, put his 2004 Chevrolet truck in reverse and turned toward the trailer.
"How are you today?" Buonamici said to the man who walked up to the truck.
Buonamici is friendly with most. He finds that people are rattled when he approaches them and it's best to show that he's not "out to get" anyone, he said.
In this case, the approach works. The man in the trailer manages a few ranches in Gerlach and camps on his days off. No citations are issued.
During the ride-along with an RGJ reporter and a photographer, Buonamici approached a man who was furloughed because of the federal government shutdown, a firefighter with the division of Forestry on vacation, a family celebrating the opening of chukar season and other people with tents, trailers and RVs.
Of the 16 stops he made, all hunters provided valid tags and had no ammunition in their weapons chamber.
"We're not out there to see how many tickets we can write," Buonamici said. "We're out there to be a source of information for the sportsman and obviously out there to seek out poachers. That's a very important part of our job."
Buonamici is armed with a Glock handgun and a Taser. A 12-gauge Remington shotgun is mounted on the ceiling of his truck, and kept under lock and key. Each warden also carries and semi-automatic rifle.
The dangers of the job are well-documented — including Claude Dallas killing two Idaho game wardens in the 1981, which was featured in a movie and at least three books. Buonamici helped when Dallas was on the loose after the killing and after his subsequent escape from prison.
Lesser-known cases include that of a Louisiana wildlife official who was undercover on surveillance and was found dumped in a river after suffering a shotgun blast to the chest in 2011.
"I've been out there undercover with them, and they're talking about killing the game warden if they get caught," Buonamici said. "They talk about what they're going to do with the body."
Because its resources are limited, the NDOW has pushed its Operation Game Thief program as a way for the public to help catch poachers safely.
There's a secret witness hotline that's staffed around the clock, and rewards are offered.
Buonamici said the hotline has led to hundreds of cracked cases. There was a $20,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Dallas, who was ultimately caught via assistance from a secret witness hotline.
Buonamici stressed that all cases are different. Some people intend to fish without a license or hunt in the wrong unit. But others don't.
And there are honest mistakes, like the time Buonamici worked an investigation where a hunter legally shot a bighorn sheep and the bullet went through the animal, ricocheted off a rock and killed a fellow bighorn sheep that was 50 feet away. The hunter was not cited.
"We always look at intent," Buonamici said. "Sometimes it's an honest mistake. They didn't intend to violate, but they were negligent. They didn't research it enough. We treat that differently than someone who says, 'That's a nice buck of there. I don't care if my tag is over here, I shoot it, throw it in the truck, haul it over there so I can show the game warden that I shot it in the right unit.'"
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com
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