Word went out on Facebook, Craigslist and notices posted in crossroads stores in mountain communities in Georgia and North Carolina:
Bear-hunting guides for hire.
Word got around, too. The guides were so good that at least two hunters came from Alabama and Texas, paying an average $1,000 for a close shot at Ursus americanus, the American black bear.
But the guides, say police, were poachers. They used chocolate, peanut butter and honey buns to lure the state and federally protected species to spots where hunters had can’t-miss shots. They used dogs to run down their quarry. They caught bears in box traps. They took hunters on federal lands without the proper permits.
On Wednesday, state and federal law enforcement officials in Gainesville and Asheville announced the first arrests in Operation Something Bruin, a four-year undercover investigation of illegal hunting on public and private lands in Georgia and North Carolina. The probe identifies nearly 80 suspectswho committed 980 offenses, police said. Some poached as guides and others poached for themselves, police said.
In Georgia, officials issued warrants for eight suspects charged with 136 violations. By Tuesday evening, police had arrested three unidentified Rabun County men, who posted bonds ranging from $10,000 to $40,000.
Officers were searching for five more, said Col. Eddie Henderson, head of law enforcement for the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division. The suspects are charged with state misdemeanor violations and face $1,000 fines and up to a year in jail for each offense.
Agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service are involved in the investigation, meaning federal felony charges are possible.
“Some interesting things came up over the past four years,” Henderson said Wednesday at a news conference at the division’s law enforcement offices in Gainesville. “It’s been a real eye-opener.”
Poachers, said officials, used cell phones, GPS equipment and relied on social media to conduct illicit business. They killed at least 10 bears — enough, officials said, to have an impact on their mountain population. Georgia, according to DNR, is home to about 5,100 black bears in three areas: the mountains; the Ocmulgee River basin in central Georgia; and the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida line.
Operation Something Bruin called on police to cross state lines to net their suspects. Agents from North Carolina came to Georgia, where they weren’t known as cops, and gained poachers’ trust. Georgia DNR agents reciprocated, making friends with suspected North Carolina poachers.
Some poachers, said officials, bought 55-gallon drums of surplus chocolate from a Tennessee candy plant. They’d fill five-gallon buckets with the gooey stuff and leave them on secluded, mountainous tracts. They did the same thing with surplus peanut butter and honey buns, police said. Bears, which have a sweet tooth, quickly discovered the sites. It was an easy matter for a hunter to draw a bead on an unsuspecting bear and shoot.
The offenses didn’t always occur on land, said Maj. Todd Kennedy of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “One shot from a boat,” said Kennedy, who attended the conference here.
The investigation focused on the mountains, although officers alleged they also witnessed deer poaching in Taliaferro County, 75 miles east of Atlanta. “This spiderwebbed out,” said Henderson.
Most of the hunters, police said, shot the bears for trophies. Some probably had them mounted, while others wanted the animals’ paws as proof that they’d killed a large animal.
“These bears were being killed pretty much all year long,” Henderson said. “These folks were hunting on a daily basis.”
Some were more energetic than others. On Wednesday, Georgia officers were prowling North Georgia, looking for a man facing 99 counts of poaching.
“He’s a hard-core poacher,” Henderson said.