Living off the land has been a way of life for generations in Costilla County, the most impoverished in Colorado. Here jobs are scarce, pay is low and the San Luis Valley teems with game.
“We used to own these mountains, all the way from Fort Garland to New Mexico. The people had the freedom to go and hunt for a living, and fish and get wood. It’s been here for 150 years or more,” said Jerry Sanchez of Chama.
All that came to an abrupt end on March 6, when 275 heavily armed federal and state wildlife officers, supported by planes and helicopters, swarmed through the valley in a predawn raid that capped a 2 1/2-year investigation of hunting in the area.
Seemed Like an Invasion
“I woke up and thought it was an invasion, maybe of aliens, or Russians,” Sanchez recalled. “Then I found out it was our government.”
U.S. Atty. Mike Norton, who coordinated the raid, said it was designed to protect agents. He added: “We will not tolerate the theft of the public’s wildlife resources. We will use every available legal means to stop this activity.”
The agents swept through small towns such as San Luis, Chama and Fort Garland in Colorado and Costilla, Questa, Amalia and Mora, in New Mexico. By the time they were done, 110 people had been accused of 850 violations involving the taking of elk, deer, bears, eagles and animals of other protected species.
The enforcement tactics used in the raid and the undercover operation that preceded it led to countercharges of entrapment, use of excessive force and racial bias, which state and federal officials say are being investigated.
Oldest Town in State
San Luis, population 900, is the oldest town in Colorado. Its residents trace their origins back centuries, to Spanish land grants in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In Costilla County, 36% of the 3,700 people subsist on incomes below the federal poverty standard. Unemployment is 24% and the average income is $7,600, compared with $13,800 in the state as a whole.
Federal officials say that poaching in the area was out of hand and they had to stop it.
Agent George Morrison, using the name John Morgan, rented a building in Fort Garland from a known poacher and set up a taxidermy shop. He mingled with local people and let them know he was willing to pay for elk and deer hides and carcasses, antlers from freshly killed animals, and eagles and bears.
Last year, he moved to Costilla, N.M., just south of San Luis, where he continued to buy wildlife hides and trophies. To supply him there, Colorado poachers had to cross the state line with illegally taken game--and thus commit a federal offense. “Morgan” handed out flyers offering up to $40 for a buck deer cape and $2.50 for bear claws. Those arrested said he paid up to $300 for an eagle, $200 for an elk and $50 for a deer.
95 Eagles Reported Killed
Federal agents moved in after 2 1/2 years, during which they admit that at least 500 elk, 2,000 deer and 95 eagles were illegally killed to be sold to “Morgan.”
State Rep. Lewis Entz, whose district includes San Luis, said he received 50 calls in support of the arrests and only one protest, but most Costilla County residents say the government went too far.
“I could have taken six men out there and done the whole thing without traumatizing every woman and child in the county,” said Sheriff Pete Espinoza, who was not told anything--for his own safety, according to Norton--until the raids were under way.
“We’re not condoning poaching,” Sanchez said. “It’s against the law and people should be penalized. It’s the way they handled the situation, the tactics they used--the guerrilla tactics. We’re not bad people here.”
The operation was “completely out of proportion,” said County Coroner Charles Mondragon, an eighth-generation resident of the valley. The whole county was “terrorized because of the actions of a handful of poachers,” he said.
Some Were Terrified
Elderly people on isolated farms were terrified to see armed men “crawling across their fields with military-type uniforms on,” San Luis town trustee Augustin Jaramillo said.
Many of those arrested are charging entrapment. They say they would not have violated the game laws if the government had not set up the market. Some said that “Morgan” openly encouraged them to kill game.
Galen Buterbaugh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the undercover agent bought only enough game to get evidence for each case.
Robert Espinoza, a former deputy sheriff, was accused of 33 counts of game law violations. He was indicted on March 17 on federal felony charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, illegal sale of bald and golden eagles, eagle talons and an elk trophy.
“One animal will prove you guilty,” said one defendant who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They didn’t have to go and have someone literally slaughter 20, 30, maybe 40 eagles to come out and try to prove the point that the guy is a poacher. It just takes one eagle to lock a guy behind bars.”
The San Luis Town Council has asked Gov. Roy Romer to investigate “the extreme measures” taken. The agents defeated their own cause, the council said, “by creating a market for the purchase of wildlife from unsuspecting victims of entrapment.”
Romer has named a four-member state commission to investigate, and U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) has asked the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee to look into the methods used in the raid.
The governor was told of the raid beforehand, but he said: “I did not know there was going to be that kind of force concentrated in one place.”