OUTDOORS

Photo contributed

Retired ECO Jerry McDermott with an illegal bear shot on opening day circa 1989; a time when it was unthinkable for any ECO or lieutenant not to be in the field on the Southern Zone opener.

When I first became a NYS Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO) with DEC’s Division of Law Enforcement 35 years ago, every ECO, lieutenant, and many captains in the Southern Zone worked opening day. It was unheard of to be granted or even request vacation during deer season. It was the busiest day and time of the year. Everyone understood you were expected to work on opening day.

In fact, I recall the conversation during the hiring-interview process where you were tested, being asked if you were willing to sacrifice a careers worth of hunting opening days for the opportunity to be an ECO.

The Division sought officers who were independent, self-motivated men and women, willing to make family sacrifices, work nights, weekends, holidays, and opening days.

Back then, the Division valued those who hunted and fished but had to accept the reality they would not be hunting opening days. That’s just what was expected.

It was a way of life, a calling, one that somewhere along the line became just another law enforcement job to some. It proved to be an exciting era combating deer poaching.

My first undercover work as a new ECO had me hunting with a gang of deer jacking poachers on eastern Long Island who were selling deer to restaurants. After a lengthy, and at times harrowing investigation, we arrested the ring leader for multiple felony counts of deer jacking (shooting deer at night with a light) and illegally selling deer.

Upstate, the busy time started in September with the onset of “jacking season.” Officers staked out fields in the dark of night till the wee hours of the morning. We used to conduct deer jacking saturation initiatives with an “all-hands on deck,” approach, flooding counties with ECOs and lieutenants, perched in fields in their blacked-out vehicle hides. We waited for that flash of light or the tell-tale “crack” of a rifle to break the silence, and remained patient till the creeping vehicle was close enough for officers to “pounce.” Unsuspecting jackers were overwhelmed by the abrupt car stop, the shock of bright take down and strobe lights disorienting the armed vehicle occupants.

Sometimes we would coordinate our efforts with fixed winged aircraft operated by the NY State Police which enhanced the range of the blanketing stationary “patrol.”

Acclaimed deer jacking initiatives like Operation “Jack Hammer,” Operation “Dark Night,” and Operation “Northern Lights” which repeated the drill hundreds of times, are now relics of a time past.

When deer season finally arrived, all officers worked opening day, and most worked every day until to its close. ECOs and their supervisors started early and ended late. They rolled from complaint to complaint arresting deer poachers, trespassers, and stood ready to respond to hunting accidents and any eventuality that came there way.

We would conduct strategic road checks with our law enforcement partners at just the right time to intercept those hauling illegal deer.

After what sometimes would be a 20-hour day, I recall coming home to a dark house. Dinner set aside for me, I ate quickly as everyone slept, got a few hours’ sleep, and was out again early the next day.

There was even a time when DEC paid “Special Game Protectors” to help with deer season. “Specials,” as they were known, were used to assist ECOs during the busy deer season and other peak periods.

You might say, well, back then deer hunting was important.

Hunters in red plaid were packed into smoke filled diners at 4 a.m. Signs welcoming hunters were everywhere as hunters did their part in support of the upstate economy. Camps were full as ECOs rolled into the remote outposts. For the most part, their occupants were happy to see their local officers.

Back when we started to address the menace of deer jacking in a coordinated fashion, some believed the practice was a thing of the past, a relic of a bygone era. We thought differently, and resurrected deer jacking as a wildlife enforcement initiative.

The first initiative, Operation “Jackhammer,” in 2009, astoundingly netted 207 jackers and hundreds of tickets, despite the fact it was only a pilot program conducted in a third of the state.

While many may say the glory days of deer hunting and deer jacking patrols are behind us, one just needs to look at recent statements made by the head of DEC.

In a press release in October, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, recounts drastic increases in license sales and record numbers of big game hunters getting their license for the first time in 2020. The commissioner stated, “The Southern Zone regular season is New York’s most popular hunting season, with participation from about 85 percent of New York’s 550,00 licensed hunters. Harvest during this season accounts for nearly 60 percent of the total statewide deer harvest and 30 to 60 percent of the bear harvest.”

Despite the increase in hunters, this year, ECOs and lieutenants were not assigned to work opening day. Over their objections, they stayed home. Some actually hunted on opening day of deer season for the first time since they began their career. I know it had to be strange and likely frustrating on many levels, even if they had a successful hunt.

Rearranging one’s core priorities in the midst of their chosen career can be bewildering. It could unnecessarily feed a job-identity crisis.

When wildlife resource protection is declared a low priority by DEC and its top command, it won’t be long before every member of the Division adopts the same policy.

The DLE mission statement still includes the protection of our wildlife and natural resources at its core.

ECO candidates who hunted, trapped and fished were sought after, fitting the standard set in 1899 in Teddy Roosevelt’s “Men of Courage” statement,

“I want, as game protectors, men of courage, resolution and hardihood who can handle the rifle, axe and paddle; who can camp out in summer or winter; who can go on snowshoes, if necessary; who can go through woods by day or by night without regard to trail.”

That sentiment was echoed in an article entitled, “Standing Watch – 125 Years of Conservation Law Enforcement in NYS, in the October, 2005 issue of DEC’s magazine publication, “The Conservationist.” It discussed the origin of NY’s Game Protectors, forerunners of today’s ECOs. In that poignant article, authored by now retired ECO Eric Haslun, he wrote,

“While the Division has evolved into a top-rated police organization, it maintains a unique focus in the law enforcement profession because of its association with resource and environmental protection and public education. Division staff maintain the values and work ethic of their predecessors, the Game Protectors. By working day and night for a mission in which they believed and to which they were committed, Game Protectors provided the standard for today’s ECOs.

DLE is dedicated to its mission of resource and environmental protection, a mission which all New Yorkers can be proud of.”

Is DLE “…dedicated to its mission of resource and environmental protection”? And are New Yorker’s proud of their work?

While other states glorify and celebrate the hard and often dangerous work of their game wardens in wildlife enforcement TV shows like, “North Woods Law” in New Hampshire, “Lone Star Law” in Texas, and “Wild Justice” in California, NY has no such programs.

In fact, it made a clear choice on November 21st 2020 to abandon the core of its mission to protect our whitetail deer resource on opening day.

I look forward to, but perhaps it’s too late, to a day when the Division shows that it truly cares about resource and environmental protection and the dedication of its ECOs.

While it’s understandable that current budget constraints have some impact on ECOs, logic would dictate that available funds go to performing their core mission of protecting our wildlife and natural resources.

While it’s fitting that ECOs, and every other state officer, assist with emergencies like the COVID 19 response, especially when the crisis first arose, this notion was taken to the extreme.

It’s been reported ECOs were paid overtime to go undercover, enforcing social distancing and mask wearing requirements in retail establishments in lieu of State Liquor Authority investigators. I’m all for ECOs helping out agencies during this public health crisis, but not at the cost of abandoning its core function.

If you don’t assign ECOs to work on opening day of deer season, when should they be assigned?

Diminishing the importance of fish and wildlife enforcement, and increasingly broadening ECO’s responsibilities is making the title of ECO wholly unrecognizable from the origins so aptly described in ECO Haslun’s article. Will they join the ranks of statewide police organizations like the NYS Troopers and disappear as a unique police force entirely?

While individuals and some local sportsmen federations did in fact object to ECOs not being assigned to work this deer season, the largest statewide sportsmen’s organizations remained silent.

Without a vociferous, coherent, objection from the biggest statewide spokespersons for sportsmen, what is the future for NY ECOs?

Has opening day of deer season on November 21st 2020 ushered in a permanent departure from the Game Protector heritage of ECOs and the glory of opening days past?

Let’s work to ensure this change in priorities of our ECOs was a momentary lack of judgement, and not the end of an era of “Standing Watch.”

Happy Hunting, Fishing, and Trapping and Hunt Safe until next time.

Here is a list of some area deer cutters that participate in a Venison Donation Program:

CORRECTION: Randy Plass cuts deer at 156 Footbridge Road in Hudson. The location in the prior column was his prior location.

Columbia County

Randy Plass, 156 Footbridge Road, Hudson, 347-638-6179 or 518‑755‑6928

Gary Peters, 72 George Rd, Ghent, NY, 518-392-7146

Greene County

Rich’s Custom Meat Shop, 311 Maple Ave, Greenville, 518-966 8597

Berkshire View Custom Cut Meat, 838 Alcove Road, Hannacroix, 518-731-1316

Les Armstrong, 936 Hervey Street, Cornwallville, 518‑965-4868

Remember to report poaching violations by calling 1-844-DEC-ECOS.

You can share any comments with our sports desk at sports@registerstar.com

*If you have a fishing or hunting report, photo, or event you would like to be considered for publication, send it to: huntfishreport@gmail.com

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