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Saturday, February 7, 1998

Game wardens round up suspected poachers in South Texas

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- After more than a year of undercover work, 40 state game wardens have fanned out across the South Texas brush country to arrest men suspected of poaching deer.

The roundup of at least 11 suspected poachers on game- and drug-related charges Thursday was the largest big-game sting operation in the history of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"(Poaching) acts are insults against everyone who hunts legally and uses the outdoors in Texas," Andrew Sansom, executive director of the state wildlife agency, said as the sting operation was carried out.

Dubbed Operation Venado Macho, Spanish for "big buck," the undercover effort dates to September 1996. Game wardens drove thousands of miles each month scouting for deer and winning the confidence of poachers.

Some suspects are accused of swapping cash, marijuana and hunting equipment in order to be smuggled at night onto private ranches, where they could illegally kill trophy deer for their antlers, authorities said.

Headless deer carcasses often were left on the ranches, and antlers were sold for wall mounts or western art or furniture, said Jim Robertson, law enforcement director for the state wildlife agency.

Poachers used night scopes, spotlights and silencers to hunt secretly on ranches in Webb, LaSalle, McMullen and Duval counties -- some of the best whitetail deer hunting territory in the United States, officials said.

On foot, some men allegedly traveled by moonlight for miles, using hand-held computerized global positioning systems to navigate.

Game wardens found one pair of boots with its soles carved to leave behind what looked like the cow hoof prints rather than human footprints.

Game wardens worked under tight security from a secret command post in McMullen County as they served warrants in at least eight South Texas communities. One by one, game wardens' trucks arrived at the Webb County Jail early Thursday to deliver suspects.

If convicted of the misdemeanor and felony charges, the suspects face assorted fines and jail sentences. They also could face civil restitution for the poached deer, ranging from $526.50 to $20,000 per animal.

Legitimate hunters often pay $7,500 or more to hunt prize bucks on South Texas ranches.

About 14 deer were killed during the undercover operation. The sting was carried out with the permission of ranch owners.

Richard Nunley, whose family owns the Junco Ranch in Webb and LaSalle counties north of Laredo, said poachers long have sneaked onto his property to kill deer and saw their heads off for prized antlers.

"After years of stress and more than a year of an undercover operation, it's all over with," Nunley said.

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