TEXAS CREEK, Colo. (CBS4) — Wildlife officials busted a poacher illegally baiting and killing bears — and used photos from his own game camera to prove the crime.
Back in September 2017, a confidential informant spotted a salmon fillet taped to a tree in a remote spot on Table Mountain in rural Fremont County. That person took a photo of the bait and provided it to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Bob Carochi, a CPW district wildlife manager who has patrolled the area west of Cañon City for 14 years, wasted no time pursuing the poacher,” officials said in a statement released Thursday.
The following day, Carochi and fellow wildlife officer Zach Holder took all-terrain vehicles about six miles up Table Mountain.
There, they found a hunting blind in a tree overlooking an open area with plastic containers and a bag taped to a tree. The salmon fillet, had disappeared from the tree.
Carochi and Holder found something else left by the poacher: a game camera overlooking the site.
Carochi turned off the camera, removed its memory card and put it in his own digital camera. From the information on the photos, he learned it had been put up just four days before and photos showed a bear feeding on the bait attached to the tree.
After replacing the memory card in the poacher’s camera, Carochi and Holder took their own photos of the scene and put up their own game camera overlooking the blind and illegal bait site.
Carochi returned to his office and began looking through bear-harvest forms for Game Management Unit 58, where the bait site was located. He discovered that a Salida resident, Ronald Wilkins, had harvested bears from GMU 58 in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“Carochi wondered if Wilkins was an especially skilled bear hunter or was using the illegal bait site to poach bears,” officials stated.
Next, Carochi discovered Wilkins had a current bear hunting license valid for GMU 58.
On Sept. 23, Carochi and Holder took their ATVs back to GMU 58 and rode their ATVs within a mile of the illegal bait site to conduct surveillance. After a few hours, they began riding the trails and came upon an older man dressed in full camouflage, carrying a gun case and riding an ATV. The man identified himself as Ronald Wilkins and he said he was hunting bears with a muzzleloader rifle.
Wilkins described how he had killed a large bear two years ago and had the hide made into a rug that was hanging on his wall. After a brief conversation, Wilkins headed back toward the trailhead.
Carochi and Holder headed to the bait site where they found a new pile of dog food at the base of the tree, a plastic jar of honey and a new fish taped to the tree.
Carochi again removed the memory card from the game camera left by the poacher and found images of Wilkins in his camouflage outfit walking around the site.
On the night of Sept. 24, Carochi and Holder returned to the bait site, which had been refreshed once again. This time, the memory card on the game camera had a photo of a bear eating the bait.
Four days later, on Sept. 28, Wilkins went to CPW’s Salida service center to present the head and hide of a bear he had killed for mandatory inspection.
As Area Wildlife Manager Jim Aragon processed Wilkins’ bear, Carochi and Holder headed to the illegal bait site. The blind and chair were gone, but bait was still on the tree.
“Over the next three hours, Carochi and Holder found Wilkins’ camp, a bag of dog food near the bait site and the remains of a bear carcass,” officials stated. “They took photos and tissue samples. Their investigation included opening the bear’s stomach to study its contents: partially digested dog food and honey.”
On Oct. 5, Carochi and Holder led a team that served Wilkins with a search warrant at his home. During questioning, Wilkins admitted baiting the bear even though he knew it was illegal. He later signed a handwritten confession, according to officials.
On Dec. 15, Carochi issued Wilkins a summons for illegally baiting a bear and unlawful possession of wildlife.
“In late January, Wilkins pleaded guilty to illegal baiting and received a stiff punishment: a $1,400 fine, a 180-day jail sentence and a five-year ban from hunting,” officials stated.
“This case is a great example of the work our wildlife officers do on a daily basis,” Aragon said of Carochi and Holder. “We pride ourselves on our law enforcement work. And it shows our commitment to stopping poachers.”
Aragon also praised the person who came forward with the tip and photo of the illegal bait site.
“We depend on the timely reporting of suspicious activity by the public,” Aragon said. “We have a limited staff and we can’t be everywhere. It’s critical we get the public’s help in stopping crimes against wildlife. When people call, we absolutely respond.”
Anyone who has information about a possible crime against wildlife is encouraged to call CPW or report it anonymously to Operation Game Thief, a CPW program that rewards citizens who turn in poachers. Witnesses can reach Operation Game Thief several ways including by calling, toll-free, 1-877-COLO-OGT (or 877-265-6648). Verizon cell phone users can dial #OGT. Or send an email to CPW at email@example.com.
Callers do not have to reveal their names or testify in court. A $500 reward is offered for information on cases involving big game or endangered species, while $250 is offered for information on turkey and $100 for fishing and small game cases.