WOODSTOCK – A group of hunters learned recently that cheating under the game warden’s eye in Shenandoah County doesn’t pay.

Owen Heine, a conservation officer with the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries assigned to Shenandoah County, spoke this week by phone about the months-long investigation that exposed a group’s use of illegal tactics to hunt bears in the George Washington National Forest. The investigation focused on the area of the Peters Mill Run off-road vehicle trail that runs from Edinburg Gap to Woodstock Tower Road, Heine said.

Heine ultimately charged Joseph P. “Buster” Gyoker Jr., Joseph W. Stanley, Michael Crutchfield, Dakota J. Corder, Joshua L. Miller and Gary A. Bright with one or more of the following hunting offenses: unauthorized feeding bears in a national forest, unlawfully chasing, hunting or using a bait site and, in some cases, using radio tracking equipment to aid in hunting, according to Shenandoah County General District Court records. Other people were investigated as part of the case but not charged, Heine said.

The court dismissed Crutchfield’s charge at the request of the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. The remaining defendants pleaded guilty or no contest to one or more of their charges, and the court dismissed any others at the request of the prosecutor. The court ordered each convicted defendant to pay fines ranging from $150 to $250. None of the charges call for jail time. Judge Amy Tisinger lectured one defendant at his adjudicatory hearing about cheating at hunting. Another defendant told Tisinger other hunters used the same tactics or worse.

Virginia prohibits anyone from placing food, minerals, carrion, trash or similar substances when it attracts any species of wildlife in such numbers or circumstances to cause property damage, endanger people or wildlife, or create a public health concern. State law also prohibits the use of radio tracking equipment to aid in the chase, harvest or capture of wildlife. Virginia also prohibits using dogs to chase or hunt, or attempt to chase or hunt, any wild animal from a bait site or to train dogs on any wild animal from a bait site.

Heine provided details about the investigation.

“Really it’s more of a historical problem with bear hunt clubs having bait sites and maintaining bait sites, and those are really difficult to find,” Heine said. “You know how big the national forest is here, and you’re literally trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

Hunters usually hide their bait sites with no flag trail or other markings, Heine said.

“So it’s really difficult to enforce, and they all talk to each other via radio so it’s not like I can just go in there in my marked unit and expect to catch somebody,” Heine said. “I mean, as soon as I pass the first bear hunter they’re on the radio to the rest, and they know that we’re coming.

“There’s really no other way to catch them other than how we did it this time, and that was just through a series of cameras that we had placed on that road, hoping to narrow down, you know, get a pattern for them and narrow down where the bait sites might be, and it worked,” Heine added. “We ended up, on the first week of having the cameras out, ended up finding evidence of where Buster (Gyoker) had stopped in front of one of the cameras for about 10 minutes, and we searched that immediate area and found the first bait site, and built the case around that bait site.”

The investigation took approximately six months, from the time the agency set up the camera Aug. 1, 2017, to the end of the operation Dec. 16, 2017, when authorities obtained warrants to search suspects and vehicles, Heine said. The investigation continued for another several months, he added.

“After doing the take-down, I then had to analyze all that camera footage — for all that time period we had cameras running that whole time — and so you probably had hundreds if not thousands of hours of video and pictures, and only some of it was related to the case,” Heine said. “You had ATVs and other action on that trail that was unrelated.

“And then it was picking out the videos and the photographs that actually showed a crime, and then documenting that and then being able to go before a magistrate with those exact dates and times and persons involved to get the warrants,” Heine added. “So it was a pretty lengthy process to bring it to prosecution.”

The state punishments for violating hunting laws fall below those for drug-related crimes that often involve lengthy investigations.

“The significance of it, in the hunting community anyway, it’s important,” Heine said. “We have laws on the books that address this kind of thing, but to actually catch them and enforce them is really difficult.

“I mean, you’re trying to catch a hunter who is, by nature trying not to be seen by whatever animal they’re hunting, and you’re trying to find that person in violation of law,” Heine added. “You can’t just ride around in your marked vehicle and expect to catch people.”

A hunter with a firearm in the woods during a particular hunting seasons does not necessarily constitute a crime, Heine explained. Authorities must observe a hunter’s activities while in the act to see if he or she violates the laws, Heine said.

Hunting regulations and enforcement go beyond ethics and fairness, Heine said.

“We have enough problems in the summer with nuisance bears ... getting into trash, into people’s cars, into people’s livestock feed and, you know, if a bear hunter is intentionally feeding ... bears for months on end and they’re associated people with food directly, that does nothing but encourage that same behavior that becomes a problem in the off-season all summer long when we can have up to five calls a day for nuisance bears,” Heine said. “So it’s more than just the hunting ethics involved and trying to break a pattern here with these bear hunters.”

Hunting laws address public and hunter safety, ethics and biology, Heine said. The laws cover the schedule of seasons, the hours a person can hunt, trespassing and baiting. Hunting before or after the season, for example, is “cheating,” Heine said.

Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com