Faced with the daunting task of protecting wildlife across the remote reaches of the West, game wardens are using professional skills, a gift of gab and a bit of technology to snare cheaters who commit fraud and even identity theft to illegally obtain coveted wildlife licenses.
"They're criminals with guns, is what they are," said Craig Sax, a game warden in Cody, Wyo.
It is all too common for hunters to claim residence in states in which they do not live because states generally reserve most tags for residents. Resident sportsmen's licenses also typically cost much less than nonresident licenses, with the price difference escalating for big-game tags. In Nevada, an out-of-state elk tag costs $1,000 more than a resident tag.
"People from all walks of life do it," said Russ Pollard of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "It's your doctors, your lawyers -- professional people."
A former Nevada state wildlife commissioner and his son pleaded no contest last month to providing false information to obtain a resident hunting license for the son, who lived in Utah.
In Wyoming, a top prosecutor for Salt Lake County, Utah, pleaded no contest to 10 wildlife license violations, although he retained the right to appeal.
One hunter in Utah applied for big-game tags using the names of more than a dozen people, many of them old girlfriends, said Rudy Musclow of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Others make up names or use the name of a friend or someone who is dead, officials said.
"They'll give different addresses, different dates of birth, and try to portray themselves as totally different people to enhance their opportunities," said Rob Buonamici of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Investigating license fraud is difficult and time-consuming. With wardens responsible for policing thousands of square miles, many, if not most, violations go undetected.
Nevada has 35 field wardens to cover 110,000 square miles. Utah has 72.
"When you get thousands of hunters in the state, the chances of being checked are very slim," Musclow conceded.
Though it is difficult to tell how much license cheaters cost state wildlife agencies -- most are funded primarily by license and other user fees -- officials say the losses are substantial.
"In my opinion, we feel we are losing lots and lots of money by people doing this," said Glenn Smith of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The Colorado agency reported 54 violations by people making false statements to obtain licenses in 2002, and more than 1,000 in the decade from 1993 to 2002. Last year in Oregon, 65 citations were issued for residency license or tag violations.
Smith estimated that less than 5 percent of license fraud cases are detected. Officials in other states agreed that the problem is common.
"The potential for our state alone is hundreds of people a year," said Sax in Wyoming.
License fraud harms habitat and animals that come under increased pressure from hunters, and residents whose opportunities are limited by increased competition.
Hunting and fishing fees are the "gasoline that runs the engine of wildlife conservation," Sax said.
In a move to better detect such fraud, Colorado recently automated its licensing system.
Ron Day, law enforcement coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said more cheaters will be caught as states convert to computerized licensing systems instead of handwritten permits sold by local vendors.
"We're real close [to] where everything will be on a computer," said Day, who noted that that will allow states to share information.
In the field, officers rely on professional skills and a smooth tongue to spot cheaters.
It can be as simple as noticing an out-of-state plate on the vehicle of a hunter who produces a resident license.
Or through casual conversation, officers may learn the sportsman doesn't know the area, or even his supposed home town, said Lt. Walt Markee, wildlife investigator with the Oregon State Police.
"Our officers are always looking for things like that," he said.
Fines can vary widely, from less than $100 to more than $10,000, depending on the state and whether a hunter used the illegally obtained license to secure a game tag and bag an animal.
For many cheaters, however, the fines are of little concern.
"They'll just write a check," said Mark Earnhardt of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
But officials say they have a new tool that is giving cheats pause. They now can take away what violators crave most -- the thrill of the hunt.
Nineteen states around the West and as far east as Maryland have joined the Wildlife Violator Compact -- a list started in 1991 and containing the names of the most serious offenders. Names of people barred from hunting because of wildlife violations are shared and cannot get a hunting license.
"The momentum has really caught on," Nevada's Buonamici said. "The public loves it, and it takes the bad guys out of the picture."
About 3,660 people are on the banned list.
"It's a deterrent we've never had," Earnhardt said. "When they find out their privileges are revoked, they get shaky."
Pollard said the goal is to get all 50 states on board. One notable holdout is Alaska, but that is something Sgt. Burke Waldron of the state's wildlife investigations unit hopes to change. Although Alaska law recognizes license revocations from other states, it is difficult to track, Waldron said.
"We don't know if someone's been revoked," he said. "If we were part of the compact, we'd get notified if they were on the list."
But officers say for effective law enforcement, there is no substitute for hot lines on which honest hunters can give tips about poaching.
"A lot of times these people just can't shut their mouth," Earnhardt said. "They're going to tell someone.
"We certainly can't underplay the value of people," he said. "The ones they turn in are the ones who've covered their tracks, and we probably wouldn't have caught otherwise."