All of those indicted Wednesday are from Western North Carolina, wildlife officials said. Most of the 980 violations occurred on national forest lands in the western third of the state and in Georgia, with a smaller number occurring in the western Piedmont. Violations include hunting during closed seasons, exceeding bag limits, trapping, using bait to attract bears, and guiding hunts on federal lands without the required permits.
Speaking at a news conference in Asheville on Wednesday, Col. Dale Caveny, chief law enforcement officer for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said while most of the violations centered on bear hunting, charges also include numerous other state and game law violations.
Called "Operation Something Bruin," the operation is the largest of its kind since a similar, multi-agency undercover investigation in 1988 called "Operation Smoky" resulted in numerous arrests and convictions for illegal bear-hunting activities.
The latest operation involved wildlife enforcement officers and officials from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Park Service. Most of the illegal activity occurred on U.S. Forest Service lands.
"Today's arrests bring an immediate halt to those crimes and, we hope, will make would-be violators think twice before breaking the law," Caveny said. "Our long-term goal is to deter illegal wildlife activities and serve notice to everyone that wildlife officers are ever vigilant in the service of conservation and public safety."
Using "social media" such as Facebook and Twitter, wildlife agents infiltrated hunting groups to document violations, Caveny said, explaining that on at least two illegal hunts, undercover agents had to kill bears to protect their cover.
Over the four-year period of Operation Something Bruin, undercover agents documented 10 illegal bear kills, six in North Carolina and four in Georgia.Those indicted in the sting operation face minimum fines of $2,000, loss of hunting privileges, confiscation of weapons and possible jail terms. Hunting bears illegally is a Class 2 misdemeanor. Some of the indicted could face federal charges, depending on where the violation took place.