Originally created 05/17/99

New watch program targets illegal hunting



AIKEN -- The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources denied for years that it had problems with trespassers and road hunters.

So it shocked Bruce and Austin Gosnell when the agency admitted recently that such problems were becoming too numerous to overlook. And it jolted them more to learn that the department is doing something to curb the complaints by addressing their content.

The Gosnells had thought their grumbles were being ignored.

They had good reason to gripe. Two years ago, deer hunters threatened to burn them out if the Gosnells wouldn't let them hunt with dogs on property they own in Windsor -- even though the hunters had no right to be there.

"They were our welcoming committee," Bruce Gosnell recalled. Being from Hendersonville, N.C., Mr. Gosnell said he had never experienced anything like that before, and he didn't quite know what to make of it.

"Where I come from, we ask for permission to hunt. If the person says no, that's the end of it."

But "no" is something these deer hunters don't understand, he says.

That's why game wardens say landowners -- especially absentee landowners like the Gosnells -- should enroll in the Resource Department's Property Watch program. The premise behind it is simple: to assure that unethical deer hunters are prosecuted, and to keep legitimate hunters out of harm's way.

"All hunters should be standing together in support of ethical hunting practices," said Steve Walters, the brains behind the program. "If this trend continues, the sport of hunting will surely take the punishment in the long run."

The Gosnells are referred to by the DNR as absentee landowners so it's easy for hunters to trespass on their property without getting caught. But if they were enrolled in Property Watch, game wardens would periodically patrol their land. Anyone caught hunting must carry a card that says he has permission to be there.

Mike Willis, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Department, could not provide an accurate number of how many property owners have enrolled in the program since it began six months ago. But with a media blitz under way, Mr. Willis said the numbers should climb.

The program has the backing of Rep. Charles Sharpe, who in recent months has fallen out of favor with several groups of hunters.

The Wagener lawmaker -- a Republican and chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee -- is the author of a bill that would change a state law that lets hunters stand in the rights of way of paved, public roads to fire at deer and other game. If enacted, hunters could release and retrieve their dogs at roadsides where they lease land or have written permission from property owners. But firing weapons there would be illegal.

Mr. Sharpe's bill won't reach the House floor before the Legislature convenes in June. He's not letting it. Instead, he plans to appoint a group of hunters and nonhunters to iron out a suitable compromise over the summer.

"Cooler heads always prevail," he said.

Mr. Sharpe plans to participate in the program and urges others to do so. If the program is going to have an impact, property owners must stay committed, he said. In some cases that means swearing out warrants against hunters who break laws.

"People always ask us, `Why can't you just write (trespassers) a ticket?"' Mr. Walters said.

But the bottom line is this: DNR officers do not have the authority to carry cases to magistrate's courts without a warrant from the land owner. If the land owner doesn't sign a warrant, no crime has occurred.

To learn more about the Property Watch program, call (803) 734-3888.

Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.