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CO: Poacher caught on video; officials say illegal hunting's on the rise

November 15, 2009

"Wildlife officers believe they catch only the tip of the iceberg of the poaching. If left unchecked, poachers would wipe out every species in Colorado's landscape in a very short time, the officers fear."

Colo. poacher caught on video; officials say illegal hunting's on the rise

The video shows two men twirling their guns, shooting from a moving ATV and drunkenly falling over barbed-wire fences to collect their trophies. The men joke with each other as they break the law and illegally kill animals.

"This sure ain't legal, but (expletive) it!" Mike Battaglia says on the video. "This is what we do out here in Maybell, Colorado, on our day off."

The video was taken by an undercover investigator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Battaglia feels bad about what happened in the woods, according to his attorney, Christopher Beasley.

"He doesn't normally poach and is sure as heck he won't do it in the future," Beasley said.

Battaglia expects to have his hunting privileges suspended now that he's pleaded guilty to illegal possession of three elk and shooting out of season.

The number of poachers ignoring wildlife laws and killing big game for their antlers or other trophy parts is on the rise across Colorado, according to the division. Officers say the two factors driving poachers are ego and money.

"We say they have the disease. And to these people, capturing and killing wildlife for ego or for profit is all-consuming," said Jay Sarason, chief of law enforcement for the division. "They act as if they are possessed. And they will continue to do it until after they are caught."

Field officers have discovered and heard about more kill sites this year than last year at which the head of the animal was cut off and stolen, and the body of the deer, elk, antelope or bighorn sheep was left behind to spoil.

Cutting a wide swath of damage

Poaching harms wildlife habitats and populations and cheats hunters, photographers, hikers and nature lovers, according to the division. Wildlife officers write about 2,150 tickets a year to hunters; 200 are for serious poaching crimes such as thrill-killing, hunting without licenses, poaching or wasteful destruction.

"What we see is the aftermath of people going out and killing trophy animals and removing those trophy parts, which would be the antlers or the horns, and leaving the carcasses to rot," Sarason said. "It is so disrespectful to the wildlife and gives hunting a bad name."

Antlers can earn poachers hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.

"Some people do it purely as a business. They've detached from their activity. It's just pure dollars and cents. They don't see wildlife as anything other than something you can buy and make a buck," Sarason said.

Wildlife officers believe they catch only the tip of the iceberg of the poaching. If left unchecked, poachers would wipe out every species in Colorado's landscape in a very short time, the officers fear.

"I just see this travesty when the animal is killed and it's wasted," Sarason said. "The meat is wasted. The honor of that animal is wasted and destroyed by the manner in which it was taken."

Earlier this month, Battaglia, of Craig, pleaded guilty to illegally possessing three or more big-game animals and to hunting elk without a license in Colorado after criminal investigators videotaped him and a friend ignoring wildlife laws. Battaglia did not return calls for comment.

9News is not identifying the man in the video with Battaglia because he has not been charged.

Criminal investigators have also covertly videotaped poachers jumping out of their vehicles and shooting at decoy deer in the woods. Those hunters received tickets, were fined and some had their hunting licenses suspended.

Making a poacher pay for crimes

The worst poacher in Colorado's history was George Waters of Iowa, in 2002. On undercover surveillance tapes, he bragged to friends he'd killed more top bucks in the world that were registered as Boone and Crockett trophies than anyone ever has or ever will. Wildlife officers say most hunters are lucky to see one such animal in their lifetimes, let alone kill one.

When he was caught in 2002, Waters forfeited 140 racks of antlers, nine firearms and admitted in a plea agreement to poaching 45 trophy animals including white-tailed deer in Iowa and elk and mule deer in Colorado in violation of state and federal laws. He did it for the money, investigators say.

Waters sold most of the trophy antlers, earning at least $270,000 over a decade.

He got caught after a sharp-eyed Colorado wildlife manager spotted a deer head high up in a tree where it didn't belong. For a decade, Waters had been shooting big game illegally, slicing off the heads and then camouflaging the antlers. He would duct-tape the antlers, spray-paint them so they blended into the branches and hide them in treetops until he could retrieve them later.

Waters ended up pleading guilty and serving five years in prison, along with paying more than $40,000 in fines and restitution. He can never hunt or carry a firearm again.

If you have seen or heard about illegal taking of wildlife, the division asks that you contact "Operation Game Thief." E-mail game.thief@state.co.us  or call 877-265-6648.

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