A 45-year-old wildlife officer with the state Game and Fish Commission patrolling for game law violators from aboard the agency's helicopter was killed Nov. 16 when the helicopter crashed in a field.
Sgt. Monty Carmikle was acting on a tip about hunters spotlighting deer in Cleburne County when engine trouble, it's believed, brought the helicopter down. Pilot Jerry Fryar was able to land the helicopter, but its rotor blades touched the ground, flew off and hit Carmikle's side of the aircraft.
Since the tragedy, said Col. Mike Knoedl, head of enforcement for Game and Fish, he's heard “comments” questioning the agency's wisdom in using the helicopter. Did Game and Fish risk a man's life to catch game law violators? Was the helicopter the right enforcement tool?
“I know this,” Knoedl said. Carmikle “didn't die in vain. He lost his life doing what he loves to do.” He said officers fly in the helicopter strictly on a volunteer basis, and that statistically it's safer than travel on the ground.
The helicopter allows the agency to monitor vast areas — “you can work three counties in one night” — at a cost cheap when compared to other methods of patrol, like boating, he said.
Spotlighting deer, Knoedl said, needs attention for good reason: “Not only is it impact on the natural resource, but it's very dangerous, [people] firing high-powered rifles across fields.” As an example, Knoedl said a woman in South Arkansas had been shot in the jaw when a hunter fired a round from a .22 magnum at deer feeding on acorns in her front yard.
“I come from Dallas County,” Knoedl said, “and we had horses shot, dogs, pets … .” He said the violators are hunting for fun, not food, and are often intoxicated or high on drugs. “They are not your pillars of the community.”
The Friday previous to Carmikle's accident, officers aided by the helicopter wrote five tickets for illegal deer hunting, agency spokesperson Nancy Ledbetter said. The penalty for spotlighting deer is steep: On top of a $500 to $2,000 fine, the violator can lose his gun and all his gear — including the vehicle he was hunting from — to the state. He also loses his hunting license (if he has one) for three years.
Last spring, officers who'd been able to identify baited fields from the aircraft arrested 44 turkey hunters, Ledbetter said. The penalty for hunting turkey over a baited field is $500 to $1,000 and the loss of a license for a year.
Game and Fish doesn't benefit from fines; they go to school districts in the county where the violations occurred and not to the agency. But even if the agency kept the fines imposed on violators caught thanks to the helicopter, “You can't put a cost analysis on it,” Knoedl said. “It's like [hunting for] marijuana. Does the ends justify the means? I would say absolutely.
“We don't look at law enforcement from making money, are we coming out even,” Knoedl said. “It's a safety issue.”
The 1970 Bell OH-58, which was used also in waterfowl management and other non-enforcement activities, was government surplus aircraft and obtained free by the agency in 2006. The cost per flying hour in the helicopter is $425, Ledbetter said. That includes fuel, maintenance and the pilot's pay. The agency budgeted $117,275 for use of the helicopter in the 2008-09 fiscal year that ends next June. Since the agency got the aircraft in 2006, officers have flown 180 hours in 46 missions.
The helicopter was totaled in the crash. The agency has not made a decision on whether to obtain another.
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