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    trees in a forest

    The Wardens and the Poachers

    A shared love of North Carolina’s wild places and game animals unites hunters and law enforcement, leading to successful conservation.

    By Kevin LaTorre

    May 10, 2024

    Snow still lay on the shaded mountain ridges outside Jefferson, though the North Carolina town had received only a slight snowfall three days before. Things often remain in these Appalachian Mountains which pass away in their valleys. I was at the courthouse waiting for Ashe County wildlife officer Aaron Cronk to arrive, watching my white breaths. This December morning, I would ride with him as he policed poachers in those mountains.

    We first rode northeast toward Helton Creek on gravel roads. Cronk talked slowly at first, since he was eating a cinnamon muffin. He is thirty years old, a fit man with a dark goatee and soft voice. Talk of North Carolina hunting turned to Cronk’s own hunting. He mostly fishes for brook trout, but he wanted to talk ruffed grouse, which in North Carolina are rare and only found in the mountains. “Grouse has always been my favorite hunting,” Cronk said. “I don’t see a hunt as successful if I kill a bird; it’s more about whether I see a bird.” He and his father take a week each October to hunt ruffed grouse in a northern location whose name Cronk – a prudent hunter – asked me to withhold. Turkey and ruffed grouse feathers were tucked into his dashboard, and a rifle sat upright in the cab behind us. Through my window, I watched a dog in a sunny ditch wake as we passed by.

    a ruffed grouse

    Photograph by Mircea Costina / Adobe Stock.

    Cronk has worked as a wildlife protector at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for six years, first in the wetlands of coastal Tyrrell County and now in mountainous Ashe County. Four or five days each week, Cronk rides slowly along mountain roads and beside creeks so that hunters, fishermen, and residents know he’s out policing. He drives seventy-five to one hundred miles per day, if he’s not driving farther to help patrol the neighboring Alleghany, Wilkes, or Watauga counties. Cronk is the only game warden in Ashe, where he and his wife grew up and returned five years ago.    

    Cronk described his work as indirect but vital. “Our job is preventative law enforcement,” he said. “The majority of violations we prevent come from people knowing we’re out working. The amount we prevent is higher than what we catch –” Cronk stopped the truck to let a plump doe leisurely cross the road. Cronk’s prevention is particular to these ridges and forests where he grew up, places he means to steward: “I didn’t get into this just to be in law enforcement. Being in the outdoors was always what I enjoyed. That’s something I want to preserve, so kids in the future can have the same experiences I did.”

    Past Helton Creek, Cronk spotted a pickup with an open trailer and slowed to park behind it, running the truck’s plates to ensure the driver’s hunting license was valid. Such trailers haul the ATVs which hunters use to cover more ground and haul their kill, he explained. When a red-tailed hawk arced over the road, we craned to watch its wedge tail disappear into the bare trees beyond the creek. Waiting for the truck’s hunters, we talked about Cronk’s dog, Rutabaga, and his cat, Tater.

    When two middle-aged hunters on ATVs emerged from the woods, we went out to greet them. Cronk was affable, asking after their hunt. The question was mostly decorum – the second man had a six-point buck tied and laid over the front of his ATV. Cronk checked that the animal was tagged properly and complimented his size. Down the slope from where we were all standing, the creek gurgled. The frozen mud crunched under our boots as we shifted in the cold. This chat, by this creek, was stewardship in action.

    These game animals are the reason for Cronk’s enforcement of game and fishing laws, and they have benefited from those laws. The Commission has overseen notable increases in several species since the 1970s: white-tailed deer harvested annually increased from 22,600 in 1976 to 168,427 in 2021; black bears harvested increased from 121 in 1976 to 3,661 in 2021; and wild turkeys harvested increased from 144 in 1977 to 24,089 in 2023. Commission biologist John Harrelson said these populations have accelerated in the last few years. Wild turkeys, in particular, have gone “gangbusters,” well beyond their paltry numbers in Harrelson’s childhood, when he’d had to travel to Louisiana to hunt them. Black bears have filled their ranges in the Appalachians and coastal swamps with help from legal protections, so that they now expand into Asheville and along the Cape Fear River.

    Chief bear biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel added that bears’ adaptability to human environments has also grown their populations. “Black bears have a lot of plasticity in their behavior,” she said. “They’re just willing to adapt to what the environment presents.” The food and shelter available in developed areas suit black bears’ varied diets and willingness to sleep nearly anywhere. “Their tolerance for human disturbance is quite impressive,” Olfenbuttel said. “They’re able to adapt to the modern world we’ve created, much more than we thought they could.”

    Black bear populations have recovered so well from historical overhunting that the Commission voted in 2022 to allow bear hunting in three of the twenty-eight bear sanctuaries it had established in 1971 to bolster their numbers. The Commission reasoned against no small criticism that allowing permit-only bear hunting would “manage the bear population,” according to its proposal. Olfenbuttel said that the goal is now to “stabilize the bear population,” since these animals have recovered and are only continuing to grow. “Our forefathers didn’t have much tolerance for wildlife and did a good job of almost eradicating many species,” Olfenbuttel said. “We wanted to restore black bears in the landscape, and we were very successful. So now, our job is much more challenging.”

    a black bear by a log

    Photograph by Kevin / Adobe Stock.

    But while these protected game species have enjoyed protected growth, other animals have not received the same stewardship. Non-game animals in specialized environments – the Bachman’s sparrows hopping beneath southeastern pines, or the salamanders submerged in misted Appalachian coves – don’t have the adaptability of the bear or deer, nor their legal protections. And since North Carolina holds that supposed blessing of being an up-and-coming business destination, land development for new industrial sites and residents is also increasing, so that specialist non-game species end up displaced. Many of the Commission staff mentioned this development as a counterpoint to the promising game numbers we’d been discussing. “The problem for non-game populations is real estate development in the southeast,” said Harrelson, who monitors alligator populations in those districts. Anna Gurney, the Commission’s public spokesperson, said that the development of rural lands for residential and industrial use impacts wildlife populations.

    A 2019 report on impacted species from the American Southeast highlighted 311 fish, 172 crayfishes, and 90 reptiles as “species of greatest conservation need.” In North Carolina, they include Bartram’s bass, the Grandfather Mountain crayfish, and the southern bog turtle (America’s smallest turtle). Suited for the chemical and topographical elements of their home environments, they rarely survive when displaced. They are also not animals whose heads, antlers, or pelts you can mount and admire.

    Cronk presumes hunters to be honest stewards of the wild until he sees otherwise, and he interprets their compliance according to his chief end: “I do this to preserve what we all enjoy.”

    In this state of thriving game animals but constricted non-game species, I’m tempted to wonder if the game wardens are fighting to a draw against forces much larger and more entrenched than poachers. But these wardens do successfully steward the game species under their charge. They preserve them even when personally intimidated. Jeremy Harrill, a wildlife protector in Rowan County who retired in August 2023, told me he came to expect dead snakes stuffed into his mailbox. He’d often received such gifts for arresting poachers. “I’ve had people show up at my house and knock on the door,” Harrill said. The homes of wildlife protectors are publicly listed in phone books, and when they arrest their neighbors for poaching, it’s common for them to receive unneighborly house calls. It’s much less common for wardens to be killed, but it has happened in North Carolina. In 1971, wildlife officer Dewie McCall was shot and killed by the fisherman he’d cited for keeping two under-sized trout. Dan Moore, a former game warden working near Asheville at that time, called the incident “getting killed over a fish.”

    Harrill said wildlife protection has always had this adversarial danger to match its vision of conservation. He’d know, since he’s interviewed over a hundred people connected to the history of the Commission’s law enforcement since 1948 for a book he wants to publish on its history. Just like Harrill, these game wardens worked alone, patrolled on Thanksgiving, and rarely received thanks. “These guys sacrificed a lot in their work,” Harrill said, “and they didn’t get to see the fruits of what they did.” He credits the resurgence of game animals to these men, who gave of themselves to conserve the state’s wild animals and places. “A lot of them got to be emotional while we were talking,” Harrill said. “They’re very proud. Most of the people who do this job are passionate about our natural resources. It’s a calling. You don’t stay in this job unless it’s a calling.” That hasn’t changed. According to both Harrill and Cronk, the hard living and delayed rewards of protecting animals are still the norm, and they are still a calling.

    But poaching can also be a calling. At least according to Rickey Swearingen, a former poacher who lives near Salisbury. Harrill put me in touch with Swearingen, who had been arrested in 1992 after his neighbors reported him for poaching. In 1991, a friend asked Swearingen to poach a deer. He’d lost his job at the Cannon Mill in Salisbury and was desperate. “Kenny stood there in front of me and cried like a baby because he could not feed his kids and his wife,” Swearingen said. As a child he’d learned to hunt deer, rabbit, and quail from his father. “He begged me to shoot a deer for him, and I shot a deer for him.”

    Poaching was as simple as walking down the mile-long driveway of his remote property of corn and wheat fields, spotlighting does grazing in the dark, and shooting one. Three other friends soon asked Swearingen to poach deer for their food, and he obliged. “When someone ain’t got food,” he said, “you do what you can for them, you help that family eat. It’s the way I was raised. I poached to help people that needed food.”

    Swearingen said that the four families invited him to eat the deer after he’d dropped off its meat. “It was hard for me to eat with them,” he said over the phone. I asked why, and he said nothing. Ten seconds passed. I only heard Swearingen sniffling – he’d begun crying. “Knowing they didn’t have nothing to eat,” he said.

    Swearingen said he hasn’t poached since those four deer in the 1990s, because he can now steward other resources instead. In 2020, Swearingen inherited his father’s livestock and can provide meat without hunting it. “I haven’t had to poach,” he says. “If someone needs something, I’ll put a bullet in one of my cows.” His provision for his neighbors is now legal. But it hadn’t been when he’d poached those deer and was arrested by Sergeant Tony Sherman after a near-deadly altercation in his backyard.

    Harrill, who then worked under Sherman, recalled their confrontation: “The sergeant went out there in the middle of the night. Rickey pulled a rifle on him.” Game wardens and poachers often know each other quite well, and everyone patrolling that district knew Swearingen. “He was a notorious poacher and a dangerous guy,” Harrill said. Despite – or because of – that record, Harrill then worked with Swearingen to catch other poachers.

    a bow hunter in a forest

    Photograph by Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

    “If I can’t poach, they can’t poach,” Swearingen said. Like he had done, these hunters spotlight and shoot deer in the middle of the night. He watches them from his porch, seated in the dark. He has often driven after poachers with his truck lights off to help Harrill make arrests: “I followed this one vehicle for forty-five minutes,” he said. “And when Jeremy finally got there, he pulled seven people, four guns, and two deer out of that vehicle.” In Swearingen’s version, his anti-poaching served his community, like his poaching once had. Harrill, more skeptical, said Swearingen’s brief informing work could’ve been territorial, to help his own continued poaching (which Swearingen denied).

    The two men did agree that Swearingen used every bit of edible meat from his deer, unlike the poachers he pursued. Cronk told me such thrift is less common today. “You’ve got some people who only hunt for the antlers and some who pick the deer clean,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of people are in the middle of that.”

    While descending again to Jefferson from the northwesternmost corner of Ashe, Cronk spotted deer corpses in two roadside ditches. “There’s no excuse for this,” Cronk said while standing over the ditches to inspect. Some corpses were only spines and ribcages; some lay fully intact minus their innards. “These are the outliers,” he said, referring to the men who’d thrown away so much meat.

    In the day I spent with him, Cronk checked the licenses and tagging of twenty-one hunters and fishermen, treating each with neighborly restraint. He doesn’t like to give tickets: “I don’t wake up and think, ‘Man, let’s ruin someone’s day.’ My goal is compliance with the law. If I can gain compliance by writing a warning, that’s what I’ll do.” He repeatedly mentioned this compliance. For a lone game warden encountering hunters on hard-to-reach roads, compliance with game protection becomes uncertain, especially when those hunters share his community and its natural bounties. Compliance is a requirement he must interpret to enforce. Cronk presumes hunters to be honest stewards of the wild until he sees otherwise, and he interprets their compliance according to his chief end: “I do this to preserve what we all enjoy.”

    And Cronk truly enjoys the land. I noticed his pleasure most clearly during our wait atop Pond Mountain, the treeless, grassy bald reclaimed by the state years ago to become public game lands. We were there waiting on a hunter to return to his Ford pickup and explain why his hunting license was expired. When we’d passed an hour and a half without seeing him, Cronk recorded his information and left a note on his windshield. We relished that wait. At five thousand feet elevation, Pond Mountain is the highest point in Ashe County and yields a 360-degree view. The Tennessee Appalachian ridges shone and extended to the distant west, the Virginia ridges blue if hazy to the northeast. To the southeast, Grandfather Mountain and Beech Mountain lightly bore the sky and its wisps of cloud. Bands of snow kept the high amber grass from the gravel road.

    “I consider myself lucky to work here,” Cronk said. “It’s one of the prettiest places in the state, if not the country.” He continued to watch the road, the grass, the sky. “There’s lots of rich human history here, going back to the indigenous people who were here forever and did the same things we do today: hunting deer, living off the land.”

    A hiker, walking down the road with his loping dog off-leash beside him, told us he was watching for a golden eagle. Pond Mountain is apparently the best place in North Carolina to spot one.

    The view around us exists because Pond Mountain had once been clear-cut for a Christmas tree farm. Though its land is now conserved, the peak is no natural bald. Still, with Cronk patrolling Pond Mountain, the deer in its grass and among the oaks on its mountainside live securely within their game laws. The Carolina flying squirrels and moss spiders who needed the red spruce and Fraser fir which that farm removed can no longer live there at all.

    But there we were, so Cronk could conserve the remaining animals by requiring hunters to steward them well. He continues the vigilant work that wildlife protectors have done for decades, successfully guarding North Carolina’s game animals by staying close to their habitats and their hunters.

    Contributed By KevinLatorre Kevin LaTorre

    Kevin LaTorre is a writer and poet in North Carolina. His work has appeared in Reformed Journal, Ad Fontes, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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