Only on 12: Hunting the hunters, DNR goes after poachers

News 12 at 11 / Tuesday, December 10, 2013

BURKE COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW) -- It's a dangerous operation where the cover of night is both your friend and your enemy. But even with the risks, these rangers were ready to hunt for what's right.

"They're not hunters. They're poachers," said Jeff Billips, DNR Conservation Ranger.

Tonight the poachers are the ones getting hunted.

"Tonight we've designated a two county operation to try and locate night hunters," Billips said.

Weeks of planning and months of complaints led them to a remote plantation in Burke County. Twenty Georgia DNR rangers gathered from all over the state to find those hunters who deliberately break the law.

"It's illegal in the state of Georgia. You can't hunt deer at night," RFC Niki Spencer said.

"You've got these night hunters out there that don't care," Billips said bluntly.

Poachers are the hunters who come out after dark, long past the legal hours to hunt, and drive around shining lights in popular hunting areas waiting to catch a deer in the headlights.

"They locate the animal with the spotlight and the animal will typically stand, and they take a shot," Billips explained.

It's an unpredictable and dangerous act that can come with some serious legal penalties.

"You can't hunt from a motorized vehicle, you can't hunt from a public road, so there's a lot of diferent illegal activities that go on with night hunting," Spencer said.

So, as day turned to night, it was time to suit up. Even News 12's Christie Ethridge had to wear a bullet proof vest for protection.

"There is a huge safety issue involved," Billips said.

"We want people to be safe, and when people are riding around with loaded firearms and shooting into the darkness, not knowing where that bullet's gonna go, that's very unsafe," said Spencer.

"We are dealing with people who are typically under the influence, with high powered rifles, and we have no defense against that, except the grace of God," Billips said.

After weeks of planning, we made it to our hideout. There was nothing but blackness, night vision goggles our only eyes.

"It's a game of seconds and inches, that's all there is to it. It just comes down to that, being in the right place at the right time," Billips said as we waited.

Sitting in stillness and silence, waiting to hear one shot ring out or see the poachers shine a light.

"We'll basically sit and wait. It's a challenge. It tries your patience to sit there," he admitted.

Finally, the scanner lights up with sound. We were getting some action.

Rangers pulled over two boys for blinding the wildlife.

"The deer is handicapped by being blinded by the light basically. You've heard of the deer in the headlights," Billips said.

In the conversation between the ranger and the boys, one said, "Hunting deer at night you're pretty much screwed."

"Yeah you'd go to jail," Billips replied. "You can go to jail for this, but I choose to issue a citation and y'all go along your way."

While they escaped jail, the misdemeanor charge of Blinding the Wildlife has made these boys think twice.

"My old lady is pissed right now. There won't be any more hunting for Brian," he admitted.

To get a night hunting charge, officers must find a gun. If you get that charge, it can keep you from hunting in several states.

Tomorrow you'll hear from the only woman game warden in our area and how the DNR cap is not the only one she wears.

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