Talking to suspects who have been caught committing this
hear a variety of reasons why. Some shoot first before thinking. They
are out looking for a deer and when they see a moose, they are so
excited that they have an opportunity to harvest a moose, they shoot
it, only to later realize that they can’t load such a large animal
themselves. Maybe they chop off the hind quarters and go, maybe they go
home to try and find a truck, or find friends willing to help them load
it, but are unsuccessful.
Other times, they intend to take everything, but see
headlights coming and abandon the whole animal to avoid getting caught
poaching. Losing the meat of an animal is a much smaller loss than
facing the penalties of being caught unlawfully hunting or
spotlighting. The headlights approaching may be the conservation
officers, may be a local farmer who heard the shot, or may be someone
driving home who has no inkling of what is going on … but the poachers
vacate regardless, as they can’t risk it.
what exactly is at risk? Well, there is no longer mandatory jail time
like there was 60 years ago, but penalties are steep.
for hunting with a searchlight in Saskatchewan is up to the judge, as
there is a mandatory court appearance for anyone caught spotlighting.
The legislation allows the judge to hand down a sentence anywhere from
$1,000 to $100,000.
In addition to that, all articles seized in the
investigation, except vehicles, are automatically forfeited upon
conviction, which means the hunters don’t get their guns and spotlights
back. This can also be pretty significant, considering that it isn’t
uncommon for a nice gun and scope to be worth over the $1,000 mark.
Vehicles can also be forfeited if the presiding judge orders it. In
addition to the monetary penalties and seizures, the poacher receives a
three-year hunting licence ban and of course, doesn’t get to keep the
animal they shot, if they did indeed kill something.
Commonly, spotlighters are also hunting out of season or
on private land where they don’t have permission to hunt. Unlawfully
hunting will land you an additional ticket with a $1,400 fine. If you
kill something like a moose, elk, or trophy deer the ticket will be
$2,800 and wasting that big game animal will add another ticket to the
list, this time at a cost of $1,960. It is common to be out six or
seven thousand dollars in fines and loss of hunting equipment when all
is said and done. It is baffling why people would risk such high
penalties spotlighting but it makes perfect sense why they would
consider leaving an animal to waste in a field, for fear of being
However, the penalties have to be
high to try and deter people from this dangerous activity. It is not
only that this type of activity is very unsporting and provides the
hunter a significantly unfair advantage over the wildlife; it is that
spotlighting is truly unsafe. This fact really hit home for me last
fall. Just before midnight, my partner and I were conducting a night
hunting patrol. We saw headlights coming down a gravel road and decided
to park in a field and sit back to observe what the vehicle was up to.
As it turns out, the occupants of the vehicle were indeed night
hunting with spotlights. They shone the field next to us and then shone
their light right at our patrol vehicle in the field where we were
sitting. We conducted a vehicle stop, seized the firearm and spotlight,
and laid multiple charges.
It wasn’t until
we returned to the spot in the day time that we realized there was an
occupied farm yard located in the first field where the poacher was
spotlighting. His beam of light had lit up the field and the edge of a
bush halfway into the quarter section, however, just beyond that,
inside that bush, was an occupied house. That night, the owner and his
family of three were home sleeping.
have no yard light and if the poacher had indeed seen an animal in that
field and fired a bullet in his beam of light towards the house, the
result could have been very serious. Neither us, nor the hunter,
realized the house was there. That situation really reinforced the
dangerous nature of spotlighting to me. You really can’t see beyond the
beam of your light and the basic rule of firearm safety “Be sure of
your target and beyond” isn’t possible to follow.
The night hunting we see isn’t people sitting stationary in a
tree stand spotlighting over bait. Instead, it is always from vehicles
driving up and down the rural roads, shining field after field, looking
for animals. Sometimes the hunters know where they are, sometimes they
lose track. Sometimes they realize there is a house, barn, bin, or
tractor in the field, sometimes they don’t. Also, it seems they never
have permission to hunt on the land, because they are just randomly
driving around road hunting field after field.
Being mobile all the time makes spotlighters very hard to catch,
so officers employ a variety of tools and techniques to provid
them with the best advantage possible to detect and apprehend
spotlighters. More often than not, the elapsed time between when an
officer sees a spotlight working in a field to the time that the
vehicle stop is completed is only a few minutes. However, there is
frequently a great amount of time spent planning the patrol to realize
those ten minutes or so of action during the takedown.Use of decoys
Most people know that officers occasionally set up decoys
of moose, elk, and deer to apprehend poachers. What people may not know
is the amount of planning and preparation that goes into setting up a
decoy. Another disadvantage is that officers will only catch those who
drive down that particular road on that particular night and shoot at
the decoy. If night hunters in
the area cruise through the area,
drive by a mile over on the next gravel road, and don’t see the decoy,
all that work is for naught.
Use of aircraft
Using an airplane is another tool for officers to detect
spotlighters. Unlike the decoy operation, a plane can see hunters using
lights for miles and miles in each direction over the huge circuit they
fly. It is probably the best possible tool to detect jack lighters,
however, it is very expensive. Our budgets do not allow many flights in
a year, so again, officers hope they pick the right night and the plane
is in the right place at the right time to observe spotlights working a
This type of operation also takes
lots of staffing to implement. Twenty or more officers are frequently
used on an aircraft patrol. The plane has the pilot and officers
trained to be observers for spotlighting patrols. On the ground,
officers strategically spread out their patrol trucks along the flight
path. When the plane observes lamping activity, they contact the
nearest enforcement units to move in and conduct a vehicle stop.
The use of aircraft is undoubtedly the most effective way
to observe and apprehend poachers night hunting with lights
again, it requires a lot of planning. The flight path is chosen based
on files and previous illegal hunting activity and each officer’s
vehicle is assigned a strategic spot on the map. These spots ensure
officers can have a good response time to all areas of the flight path
and are in a good location to observe hunting activity on their own
where they are.Use of multiple units to “flood” an area
Getting many patrol units together in an area is also
effective without an aircraft. Having officers located all around a
problem area greatly increases the chances of some officer being at the
right place at the right time to observe people hunting with
The patrol units are assigned a specific spot or area and
are either stationary or mobile. When one unit observes a light working
in a field, they contact adjacent units to come and assist in the
apprehension of the perpetrators.Single unit patrols
All this talk about planes, decoys, and multi-vehicle
patrols is fine and dandy and is great when it happens, but, more often
not, spotlighting patrols are done by two district officers in a single
vehicle. The officers patrol their district’s hot spots and
observe some illegal action. Officers greatly rely on help from the
public to know which areas are currently being hunted at night.
TIP calls are very important as officers want to put
themselves in the best position to have an encounter with a violator.
When members of the public call in the illegal activity they see,
officers observe trends and patterns and they can concentrate in the
problem areas. Some people believe that calling in the mobile
spotlighters they see has no value because by the time officers arrive
on scene, the suspects will be long gone. This may be true in most
cases, but if the hunters happen to shoot an animal, they may stay in
the area for a good amount of time, gutting and loading an animal.
These TIP calls are extremely important and helpful
because, if nothing else, they show officers which areas are currently
hunted at night and officers can concentrate their patrols in that
specific area the next day, or the weekend. Also, these types of
observations by the public serve as grounds to conduct decoy
operations, when officers discover multiple serious violations are
occurring in a specific area.
there is some confusion as to what is and isn’t legal, especially when
the activity involves night hunting and
hunters with treaty rights.
A hunter who holds no treaty hunting rights cannot hunt from one half
hour after sunset to one half hour before sunrise. They cannot hunt at
night and, of course, cannot use any type of spotlight, search light,
or night vision
device for hunting.
treaty hunter, hunting off-reserve, can hunt at night, but again, they
cannot use any type of spotlight, search light, or night
vision device for hunting in Saskatchewan. Also, treaty hunters are limited to hunting Crown land and cannot hunt a farmer’s
field without first obtaining permission from the landowner to do so.Tools of the trade
The biggest challenge for officers is catching the
violators in the act. The officer must encounter the vehicle and
observe the people hunting with the use of a spotlight, as the simple
possession of a spotlight isn’t unlawful. To do this, officers
frequently must manoeuvre their vehicles around without the use of
headlights. While this was pretty dangerous in the past, recent
with night vision goggles has made this task extremely
safe. A good pair of night vision goggles, combined with infrared
vehicle headlights, isn’t much different than driving with regular
headlights, but it is undetectable to others in the area. Strict
protocols are in place to regulate officers driving without headlights,
not only to protect the officers, but the public and the violators as
Occasionally, perpetrators decide that it is a good idea
to try and run from officers who try to stop them while night hunting.
To combat this, officers in Saskatchewan are trained to carry and use
spike belts or stop sticks to flatten the tires of those who run.
Officers have access to spike belts to prevent violators from fleeing.
These tools are particularly effective when multiple units
are in close proximity to each other in the same area. With a little
radio communication, officers can position themselves to intercept the
fleeing vehicle and deploy a spike belt as an alternative to a vehicle
Night hunting with searchlights is
serious business and is dangerous for everyone. It is dangerous for the
general public as spotlighting greatly increases the chance of a
hunting accident. Sometimes the victims are unsuspecting people who
have nothing to do with hunting or the hunting community and whose only
fault is living in a rural area.
dangerous to the hunters, not only because of the chance of a serious
hunting accident, but also because when they are close to being
apprehended, they sometimes make bad decisions trying to avoid
Finally, it is dangerous for
officers. To be out night hunting with spotlights, you immediately
demonstrate that you have very little or no consideration for the
safety of yourself or the public around you. If a person is that
motivated to go out and hunt with lights, an officer must face the
possibility that the subject is motivated enough to try and get away,
to assault an officer, or maybe even worse.
In these types of situations, officers aren’t dealing with the
hunter who made a bad decision trying to get away with something small,
or misread the regulations, or didn’t take the time to educate himself
on the regulations.
In spot lighting
situations, officers are dealing with those who make a conscious
decision to go out and hunt dangerously for their own personal gain,
with no regard for the safety of the people around them. Officers must
be on guard dealing with night hunters, because after all, you know
they have a gun.
Author: Shawn Riabko. Shawn is
a member of the Saskatchewan
Association of Conservation