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Field wardens work in uniform and in plainclothes to catch poachers before an unlawful activity affects a wildlife population. When poachers illegally harvest then sell the fish or game, the case is turned over to the Special Operations Team for investigation.
The team monitors a variety of commercial wildlife activities. If illegal activity reaches a level that begins placing wildlife resources at risk, a "project investigation" is designed to nab the violators.
"A lengthy project can produce spin-offs that take the team in several directions," says Warden Tom Solin, who heads the team.
Such was the latest full-scale project that Special Operations dove into, known as the Can-Am Investigation. It started in 1990 as part of a multi-state and provincial plan to stop illegal commercial sales of fish and game. Wisconsin's task in this covert investigation was to substantiate allegations from citizens and commercial fishers that certain companies were regularly netting more than their quotas of yellow perch from Lake Michigan waters in Wisconsin.
Special Ops set up an undercover wholesale fish business to purchase over-quota quantities of yellow perch from suspects. After three years of gathering evidence to make the case, the team made the big catch: seven federal search warrants were issued for selling fish across state lines. Dozens of state search warrants, inspection warrants, federal grand jury subpoenas, record reviews, forensic analyses and witnesses substantiated that 402,270 pounds of yellow perch were illegally harvested from 1990 to 1993. The case resulted in fines, prison terms, revocations of commercial fishing licenses, equipment seizures and confiscations.
To put this kind of burden on the shoulders of local conservation wardens would be unimaginable, and the Special Operations team carries these duties so local wardens can concentrate on enforcing local issues.
"Investigations might involve commercial fishermen or trappers who sell their illegal harvest, but not always," says Solin. The team also investigates habitual offenders, or those whose hunting and fishing privileges have been revoked from previous violations.
Solin says the unit more typically acts as covert observers for field wardens. One such case in 1991 involved a group of six anglers from Indiana staying at a lakeside resort near Cable. The group was rumored to be keeping too many largemouth bass. The local warden asked for help from Special Operations. That evening, team members began counting skins and carcasses left in trash containers outside the suspects' cabin. Posing as casual vacationers, the team kept track of violations as they observed the anglers fishing. Special Ops verified these anglers had overbagged by nearly 125 bass. The fillets were individually wrapped in freezer paper, indicating they might be bound for a restaurant or fish market.
Special Operations gets involved in regional cases, but the farthest a team member has worked was Alaska. The agent posed as a big game hunter in a guided camp offering its international clientele hunts from an airplane for bighorn sheep and bear. Hunting from an airplane is illegal. When violators were arrested at the airport after the hunt, our agent was also placed under arrest by authorities so the perpetrators would not know his identity. The camp owner went to prison and paid fines of several hundred thousand dollars.
Team members occasionally train with units in other states to share techniques for solving difficult cases. The wardens learn restrictions, game limits and special laws in neighboring states and review aspects of the Lacey Act, which governs interstate transport of fish and game.
Following lengthy investigations, defendants often ask the judge to dismiss the case on grounds of entrapment. Just because a Special Ops agent uses a fictitious name or sets up a bogus company to catch the violator does not mean undercover tactics are unfair. Certain criminals would be very hard to bring to justice if not for these techniques. The courts support our efforts, and from the inception of Wisconsin's Special Operations team in 1947 the unit has been very successful with covert operations and court convictions.
Team members are fully aware that the idea to commit an offense must originate in the mind of the accused person. Law enforcement officers are not allowed to encourage anyone to commit an offense through persistent emotional appeals. Our officers maintain a high level of professionalism whether interacting with perpetrators, district attorneys, or judges.
The Special Operations team is very small, and it takes on only a small number of cases each year. A big operation like Can-Am, or Operation Maesabi Fur, (in which an undercover wholesale fur company was established), requires a full commitment from the whole team for months. It takes a toll on team members' families and friends when the special investigators are far from home for days or weeks at a time. Special Ops wardens must conceal the nature of their work from neighbors, and avoid being photographed with other department employees. Words must be chosen carefully when speaking on the telephone from home or from the office.
Special investigators are a special breed, willing to commit a tremendous amount of time and energy to a case. The burnout rate is high, the stress substantial – but the work brings extraordinary satisfaction as solid cases are made and officers expose the underbelly of illegal actions to the light of day.
Patrick Lisi is a conservation warden stationed in Appleton.