Feral hogs set off new debate on spotlighting

Dec. 06, 2012 @ 12:47 PM

The early fall of 1973 found most of the state’s wildlife officers working half the time at night and half during the daylight.  Being the newest officer on the block, I was just happy to be one of the men in green and eager to learn all I could.  On this particular night I would get a firsthand introduction into the complex world of taking wildlife with the aid of lights, commonly known as spotlighting.

A several unit night hunting detail found me riding as the passenger with a veteran officer.  A short distance away, another officer was setup were he could observe a field that was visible from the road.  Shortly before midnight the officer called by radio to let us know that he was now covertly following a vehicle that had come by his location sweeping a light out into the field.  With the suspects’ vehicle now heading in our direction and taking a very populated deer road, my training officer and I headed to the opposite end of the road to assist with stopping them and in blocking any attempt they might have in running.

Holding up at the roads upper end intersection, we could see the lights of the vehicle slowly easing along through the night darkness.  As it approached some open fields, a strong light emitted from the vehicle, sweeping the depths of the fields.  With one patrol car behind them and our car just ahead of them, it was time to close the box.  Working in unison, the officers activated headlights, blue lights and sirens at the same time, pulling up to the front and rear of the suspects.  With lights now illuminating the suspects’ vehicle, the front passenger who was sitting on the window seal with his upper body and a rifle outstretched over the roof, got my attention first.  Within seconds, the suspects’ vehicle and the two patrol vehicles came to a stop.  With the gun toting passenger deciding it would be cool to take off running with the rifle, I put my on the job training in high gear and took off after him.  With no light and running with a rifle through a dark standing corn field, the would-be deer poacher became the first of a career filled with spotlighting arrests. 

For longer than most hunters and wildlife personal can remember, the laws pertaining to using lights in pursuit of wildlife were pretty simple and to the point.  Lights were allowed to be used by raccoon and opossum hunters and by those hunting frogs.  Lights were not allowed to be used in the taking or attempted taking of any other wildlife.  This did not prohibit using lights for normal activities by hunters and fishermen at night like walking to and from the woods, around camp or working with equipment.  Over time, the laws changed slightly to accommodate both the public and the protection of wildlife, primarily deer.  With the surge in the coyote population statewide and localized increases in feral hog, a recent liberalization change in the states laws seems to have only added fuel to the spotlight debate.

For years the law has made it unlawful to not only take most wildlife at night but also with the aid of an artificial light.  The problem is that while it may be attempted quite often, it is hard to actually catch someone in the act of having the end product.  As a result of this difficulty, the law was carefully crafted so as to be able to charge and convict someone with the offense without them actually having to physically kill a deer with a light.  This required implementing an aspect of the law known as “Prima facie” evidence.  This Latin term basically means on first sight.  What this meant as a tool for the protection of deer, was that a person could be charged and convicted of taking deer at night with the use of a light without ever having fired a shot or having even seen a deer.  To accomplish this requires a person to meet four different criteria.  These four items are shining a light, between the hours of half an hour after sunset and before half an hour before sunrise in an area frequented by wild deer while having accessible to them a firearm.  While none of these activities are unlawful individually, the combined consequence of them all together is Prima facie evidence of trying to kill deer with a light at night.  Therefore one can be charged and even convicted of the offense. 

As time went by, people wanted to be able to look at deer with lights without being charged.  At the same time, many poachers used the shining of a light without possession of a firearm in order to find where the biggest bucks were and to see if the wildlife officer was working.  If the coast was clear, they might run back home and grab the gun, or radio to the vehicle following a mile behind where they saw a big buck.  This resulted in the shining light law.  Working on a county by county basis, within a few years, all but a handful of the states one hundred counties decided to make it unlawful to intentionally shine a light in search of deer from 11 p.m. until half an hour before sunrise or all night long.  While a lesser charge, this gave wildlife enforcement a new and much needed tool.  This has seemingly worked well for several years now.  However, with the growing coyote and feral hog populations, the need to take more of these unwelcome species finally required the states’ wildlife agency to allow the taking of both with the use of lights.

Since August 1 of this year, hunters across the state have been allowed to hunt swine and coyote at night with the use lights on private land.  However, this allowance in the use of lights hit a snag last month when a judge issued an injunction to its implementation in five coastal counties.  Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway issued a preliminary injunction halting coyote hunting at night with the aid of artificial light only in those five counties. The order was issued in response to a complaint filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute.   The preliminary injunction issued today by the Superior Court only applies to hunting coyotes at night in Washington, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Hyde and Dare counties The order does not prevent taking of wildlife, including coyotes and red wolves, while in the act of depredation. It does not affect hunting feral swine at night with the aid of a light.  The preliminary injunction will remain in effect pending the final ruling by the Superior Court on this issue.

• Tony Robinson can be reached at decoydoc@charter.net