Pre-dawn arrests of 57 people on poaching charges came under sharp attack, with one official saying residents of the economically depressed San Luis Valley were entrapped by the lure of fast money.
State and federal warrants cited more than 850 alleged wildlife violations involving bear, bobcat, elk, deer and bald and golden eagles, among other animals.About 275 game officials, aided by aircraft, made the arrests early Monday in the valley and the Taos, N.M., areas.
Gov. Roy Romer said he had been told in advance about the raid but was unaware of the planned tactics, which triggered at least 30 complaints from people who said they were unnecessarily harassed.
"Obviously I am concerned about the feeling, the trauma in that community," Romer said Tuesday at a cabinet meeting in Denver. "I do not criticize the fact we have to enforce the law. I simply . . . and I do not want to make judgments about how it was done. . . . I simply know that there was trauma that resulted from it."
Costilla County Sheriff Pete Espinoza said wildlife agents kicked in doors, dragged people outside in their underwear at gunpoint and improperly stopped and searched people.
"People were crying, babies were crying," he said. "They (wildlife officers) didn't care."
Galen Buterbaugh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, denied Espinoza's charges and said the sheriff and others were worried about retaliation.
Espinoza said he and his family have been threatened by people who assumed he was involved in the operation. He said he sent two of his children out of town and a third child was wearing a bulletproof vest. His house was burned down two years ago after he angered some residents by breaking up a disturbance at a party.
Buterbaugh said so many agents were needed to make the arrests because the suspects had threatened federal officials.
The investigation targeted commercial poachers, who illegally hunt and sell game, and used an undercover agent who posed as a taxidermist first in Fort Garland, 175 miles south of Denver, and later in Costilla, N.M.
Officials said up to 100 could be arrested before the 21/2-year-old investigation ends.
Buterbaugh said the undercover agent did not encourage poaching and paid less than the going rate for carcasses.