Presenter: Buddy Turner
Commission Agenda Item No. 17
Operation Game Thief Program
I. Executive Summary: This briefing item will serve to update the Commission on the continued growth and success of the Operation Game Thief program administered by the Department's Law Enforcement Division. Authorized in 1981 by acts of the 67th Legislature, the Operation Game Thief program was created to assist game wardens in our state's ongoing battle against poaching. Operation Game Thief quickly became a vital link between the sporting public and our game wardens, and has since evolved into one of the nation's premier wildlife crimestopper programs.
II. Discussion: Authorized in 1981 by acts of the 67th Legislature, the Operation Game Thief program was created to assist game wardens in our state's ongoing battle against poaching. A 24-hour toll-free "hotline" afforded the public for the first time, an opportunity to anonymously provide critical, timely information on illegal hunting and fishing activity to which the game warden could immediately respond. A reward was also authorized for cases in which the provided information resulted in a conviction. By statute, the program was dependant on private funding, and seed money from the Houston and Dallas Safari Clubs, and the Aransas Rod and Reel Club provided the funds needed to become operational. Operation Game Thief quickly became a vital link in the partnership between the sporting public and our game wardens. Success was immediate, especially in helping to curtail the widespread illegal commercial netting that threatened certain fish populations along the Texas coast. That success spread throughout the state as evidenced by numerous significant apprehensions/convictions involving the blatant over-harvest of large numbers of our wildlife resources.
Operation Game Thief (OGT) has since evolved into one of the nation's premier wildlife crimestopper programs, fielding an average of 1,800 calls per year from concerned citizens. Significantly, while over half of those callers request a reward, of those that provide sufficient information from which an apprehension can be made, less than half are interested in a reward.
In addition to providing a violation reporting mechanism and paying rewards, OGT assists game wardens in the wildlife crime public education effort by providing each of the 10 law enforcement regions an enclosed 16' exhibit trailer patterned after the popular 25' Wall of Shame that has been exhibited at Expo and around the state since 1999.
Since 1991, OGT is also authorized to pay a death benefit to the survivor of record of any TPWD game warden or park peace officer killed in the line of duty. Within five hours of the death of game wardens Michael Pauling in 2001 and Wesley Wagstaff in 2003, a $10,000 OGT check was placed in the hands of the respective surviving spouses, providing for immediate financial needs. The OGT Committee has since raised that benefit to $25,000.
With the passage this year of House Bill 2034, sponsored by Representative Harvey Hilderbran, the OGT Committee is no longer limited to reward payments for a "flagrant" violation of the game and fish laws. Rewards can now be paid (upon conviction) for most statutes our game wardens enforce, including boating while intoxicated, intoxication assault, criminal trespass, arson in State Parks, antiquities code violations, and certain pollution violations.
House Bill 2034 also affords the Committee new latitude to more directly support game warden enforcement activities through pursuit of applicable new and emerging technologies. Accordingly, the Committee has authorized a $20,000 grant for partial equipment purchase and training necessary to "accredit" the Department's Wildlfe Forensics Lab under the direction of Special Operations Chief Mark Simmons. When achieved, this lab will be the only accredited wildlife forensics lab in the United States, other than the one operated by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
In order to fund these activities and projects, OGT pursues funding through private donations and grants, the sale of merchandise and memberships, and through twice-yearly major fundraising activities. This effort is led by a twelve-member OGT Committee under the direction of Committee Chairman Ray Bailey. Each member, appointed to a staggered six-year terms by TPWD Executive Bob Cook, is to be highly congratulated for his dedicated commitment to the OGT program.