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CHECKS, PLEASE: OFFICERS KEEP HUNTERS HONEST

They can run, but they can't hide deer hide.

A ride on opening day of shotgun deer season with Lt. Kenneth Kuczka, a Department of Environmental Conservation Officer supervisor, turned up a lot of deer hide and some observations.

Kuczka's day began at 2 p.m. reviewing the morning's investigations and violations. Officers were out in force early on opening day, but the pace of their work picked up after dark on that Monday.

Kuczka met with Investigator Jim Groebe and officer Jim Rackl to discuss two hunter-related shooting incidents (HRSIs) in Region 9, one self-inflicted.

HRSI avoids the misleading term "hunting accidents," which can include everything from falling out of a tree stand to having a heart attack in the woods.

Groebe stressed the use of the gun's safety mechanism. "This hunter stated that he had just seen deer and took the gun off safe. When a vehicle approached from behind, the hunter turned and his gun discharged into his foot," he said.

The basic lesson here about keeping a gun in the safe position when not firing -- constantly taught in hunter training classes -- is obvious.

Environmental Conservation Officer Mark Mazurkiewicz, acting on tips from area hunters, cited three violators for baiting deer with automatic grain-feeder mechanisms near a hunting stand.

"The mechanisms were removed from the feeders, but grain was still scattered below the feeder when I saw them," Mazurkiewicz said.

Shortly thereafter, an RV operator approached the ECO with a loaded shotgun in his possession, another violation.

Kuczka reminds gun owners, "All firearms must be unloaded when the hunter is operating any kind of motored vehicle."

At sunset, Kuczka and Mazurkiewicz met with ECO Jeff Rupp, a veteran officer who, like Mazurkiewicz, knows every side road in his sector and virtually every resident who has hunted a season or two in the area. The trio set up a checkpoint along a road that allows drivers to bypass the DEC biologists' check stations at Springville and Holland.

Rupp, familiar with northern Cattaraugus County, and Mazurkiewicz, adept at southern Erie County locations, set out flares at 5:30 and turned on their light bars to signal drivers to stop for a deer check. Rupp chose the location for its position (drivers could not elude the check once on this road) and its direction (east to west, but leading to a deer processor and eventually back to Buffalo).

"Our purpose is not to detain you," Rupp told one deer-carrying driver. "We just want to make sure the paper work is right."

Kuczka echoed that sentiment. "More than 90 percent of these hunters are basically honest," he said. "We could write tickets all night if we looked for every detail (on deer tags).

"The ones we really want to catch are the 'game bandits,' the ones who willfully try to beat the system year after year."

The violations cited this night were obvious cases of misrepresented tag information, or a failure to fill out the tags.

This "surprise" check station showed most hunters abide by the game laws. During the four-hour check, these officers examined more than 60 transported deer on or in vehicles occupied by almost 200 hunters. Most had their tags filled out properly and a valid hunting license in hand. Kuczka suggested, "Hunters should take a few minutes before the season starts and just read over the procedures for taking deer and other game."

Officers have to spend time assisting hunters in supplying the needed information, clearly cutting out the date of kill on the edge of the license and other reporting functions honest hunters have to complete before transporting tagged game.

Among almost 200 hunters that evening, the officers cited just four game law violations, all relating to improper reporting. One man, traveling with his son, carried an antlerless deer with a tag issued to his wife. ECOs closely watch these kinds of kills, because they often aren't deer taken by the spouse. Women hunters were well represented that evening. Three came through, all taking bucks. One said, "I was hunting with three guys and none of them got a deer, not even a doe."

The wife of the man with the antlerless deer on board couldn't offer that kind of boast. Upon investigation, the officers determined that the wife could not have taken this deer at 2 p.m. where she and her husband claimed to be hunting. Officer Rupp later went to the wife's place of employment and discovered that she was at work all that day. Other violators either took deer in the wrong DMU area or failed to fill out the tag so that it might be used to transport another deer.

Anti-hunting protesters would not appear at a surprise deer check point, but, as usual, they showed up at the Springville site just before the TV news cameras went on. Their numbers were down to less than a dozen this year, but they brought bigger, more vivid signs. Ironically, as Lt. Kuczka was leaving the biologists' check station and protest area, a deer bounded in front of his unmarked police vehicle and almost became another opening-day fatality within site of the protesters.

Hunters and bandits alike know conservation officer numbers are down, particularly in Western New York, but those on duty do a thorough and professional job in the field.

"Even the violators were treated politely by all officers," Kuczka said with pride. "We're looking forward to filling vacated positions once the upcoming academy is completed." Two trainee positions, one for a Spanish-speaking officer, will be opening immediately. Applications will be accepted until Monday. For details, call the DEC Buffalo headquarters (851-7000).

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