A wildlife conservation officer on patrol during the early morning hours in northwestern Bradford County stopped a vehicle that was swerving and driving erratically. When the WCO approached the driver's window, the individual behind the wheel put the car in reverse, then quickly pulled away, shoving the officer to the ground.
Turns out the owner of the vehicle, which was later found abandoned in a ditch, is wanted in several states and is still on the run.
In Monroe County, on the first day of the rifle deer season, a WCO approached a trailer where it was reported that an individual was hunting over bait from the residence. When the WCO knocked on the door, the occupant inside had illegal drugs and a rifle in plain view. He admitted to hunting deer over bait, and will likely face other charges as well.
Both incidents are examples of the type of criminal element faced by today's WCO's. It's a job that has grown inherently more dangerous as officers routinely patrol remote areas at all hours.
The people we're dealing with aren't just guys taking an extra rabbit or not tagging a deer, said Mark Rutkowski, law enforcement supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northeast Region. The type of individuals we're dealing with are seasoned criminals with extensive backgrounds.
Two years ago WCO David Grove was shot and killed after he stopped a vehicle for a suspected poaching violation late at night in Adams County. The individual who fired the shots was a convicted felon, and this October he was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death.
Rutkowski himself was even fired upon while he was a WCO in Lackawanna County two years ago.
So far, this deer season in the Northeast has been a bit quieter, but the violations encountered by WCO's are still mounting. The most serious incident in the region occurred in Northumberland County where an individual was shot in the arm while in the line of fire. Rutkowski said incident wasn't fatal and the injuries were minor.
In Luzerne County, most of the violations dealt with by WCO's during deer season consisted of safety zone and trespassing issues, failure to wear the required amount of fluorescent orange, not tagging deer and having loaded guns in a vehicle.
The number of violations compared to the number of hunters is up because there's less hunters in my district, said WCO Dave Allen, who patrols southern Luzerne and Carbon County.
The first day was very busy with violations, especially in the Mountain Top area.
Most of those violations had to do with hunters encroaching into safety zones (150 yards of an occupied dwelling) and trespassing, which WCO's can enforce if other game law violations have occurred.
Allen believes the increase of safety zone violations and trespassing is due to the number of large bucks being seen in residential areas.
They know there's big bucks hanging around the houses and they're trying to get in there after them, he said.
Rutkowski said even if an individual is on a deer drive within a safety zone and not carrying a gun, it's still a violation because there are in the act of hunting.
Trespassing charges will also be filed, he said, if the property owner makes such a request and if there are other game law violations. Many homeowners have requested WCO's to file trespassing charges in such instances, Rutkowski said.
Throughout the region, WCO's have also encountered several baiting cases and instances of road hunting, according to Rutkowski. There have also been a couple of cases of poaching resulting in multiple deer kills, he added, which could result in some severe penalties thanks to a new law that went into effect last year.
We had a lot of calls from the Bradford County area for night time activity. They weren't being too discriminate – shooting both antlered and antlerless deer and letting them lay, Rutkowski said.
Road hunting increases when the weather turns bad – as it did late in the rifle deer season, and some hunters drive the roads searching for deer.
Region-wide, Rutkowski said the number of violations during deer season was average. Public involvement, such as phone calls to the region office (675-1143) to support suspicious activity was responsible for 90 percent of the cases.
In northern Luzerne and Lackawanna County, WCO Gerald Kapral said he encountered a lot of hunter trespass issues in addition to other common violations. It's what he didn't encounter that Kapral was thankful for.
As of Friday I didn't have a HRSI (Hunting Related Shooting Incident). That's a major concern every year, he said.
With the two-week rifle deer season concluding yesterday, Rutkowski said WCO's will switch gears but still remain busy.
The big push of violations is off and guys start preparing for all of the court hearings to start, he said.