Fishing and hunting function as solitary sports — or can, anyway — drawn to the opportunity to spend time alone with one’s thoughts in the wild. For most, ethics dictate you behave in the same fashion whether alone or in a group. Yet, some anglers and hunters take advantage of the solitude to kill an extra duck, bring home too many fish, or harvest a deer without tagging it.
Some get away with it, no one the wiser. Others believe they’ve gotten away with it, only to find out later somebody heard them say something, saw them do something, or simply had reason to believe — even a hunch — they’d acted unethically at best, illegally at worst.
Thanks to a Minnesota program called Turn In Poachers (TIP), which is a nonprofit that has been around since 1981, people have an easy way to report what they believe may be illegal activity. TIP and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) enforcement division work in partnership, though they’re separate entities, with TIP relying on memberships, donations and fund-raisers to pay rewards and continue operation. Calls to the TIP hotline — 800-652-9093 (or #TIP on mobile phones) — are vetted by the DNR and then routed to officers in the field for follow-up investigation. (Tips also can be reported online at the dnr.state.mn.us or turninpoachers.com.)
“When I was working in the field, one of my favorite things to do at the end of firearms safety classes was to talk about the TIP program,” said Lt. Tyler Quandt, a regional supervisor for DNR law enforcement who used to patrol the Red Wing area. “I would tell them it’s their opportunity to be the game warden for the day. People always kind of liked thinking about it that way.”
According to TIP, the program has led to more than 10,000 arrests since its inception. Between 2011 and 2016, nearly 9,000 calls were made to the TIP hotline, which resulted in 1,741 arrests. Of those, 688 were related to deer, perhaps not surprising given there is about a half-million deer hunters in Minnesota. During that time, the organization provided tipsters 268 cash rewards totaling just less than $28,000. About 40 percent of the people who would be eligible for a reward actually accept it, said Dennis Mackedanz, the executive director of TIP. Some of them instead select a special TIP wildlife print, and others take neither.
This year, TIP has awarded $3,225 through October. The largest reward was $250 for a caller whose information helped conservation officers make a deer-poaching case. Rewards are given on a sliding scale, meaning a case involving taking a squirrel over the limit might net a $25 reward, while a case involving big-game species such as deer nets $250. The biggest rewards – $1,000 — generally include commercial violations such as someone illegally netting walleyes and selling them.
“It’s hard to measure the precise effects of the good work TIP has done, but I’m absolutely sure it’s made a significant positive impact on enforcement,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “Everyone I know who is involved in the outdoors knows about the program. That matters. They know it exists and in today’s modern age, you can get on your phone and Google the number. [Some people may be uncomfortable] calling 911 about a wildlife violation. It takes out the need to question yourself about who — or even whether — to call.”
TIP information can be found in the state’s fishing and hunting regulations booklets, and the group also is associated with the Wall of Shame trailer displays that can be seen at sport shows and other events across the state. The trailers include replicas of fish and wildlife poached as part of cases made as a result of TIP.
Quandt handled what’s likely the biggest TIP-related case in recent years. In 2009, he received a call about a potential poaching case in Goodhue County that involved a huge eight-point whitetail buck. While the caller didn’t call the TIP line directly, the person was aware of it and mentioned it immediately.
“Without all of the efforts that TIP previously had undertaken to get their name out there and to make it known we have a TIP program in Minnesota, this person may not have called,” Quandt said.
The call contained specific information that led Quandt to start asking questions, making connections and narrowing in on what exactly had occurred. “Once word started getting out, I got multiple other calls — some through the TIP line and some directly to me — that also came in,” he said. “If I got 10 additional calls about the case, I would say three of them were helping in putting the case together. If people are on the bubble about whether they think the information they have to pass on to us is worthwhile, I would encourage them to call. The officers are the best people to determine whether the information is valuable.”
In the end, Troy Alan Reinke, then 32, of Cannon Falls was found guilty of killing the world-record-size eight-pointer. He was fined thousands of dollars, lost his hunting privileges and spent more than 200 days in jail, a rarity in wildlife-poaching cases. It’s the largest penalty of Quandt’s career.
Quandt is the only person who knows the identity of the person who made the original call. The same goes for people who make calls to the TIP line — the call remains anonymous, as does the identities of people who accept rewards if they choose.
“The caller is anonymous to this day; I’m the only person who knows who he is,” Quandt said. “I didn’t even divulge his name to the other officers working on the case. If anybody else knows who it is, it’s because this person told other people that they called.”
TIP call motivation
Quandt says people have a variety of motivations for calling the TIP line.
“Sometimes people do it for personal reasons — they feel like they have been personally cheated out of a deer or bear or whatever,” he said. “So they call when they receive knowledge that a particular animal was taken illegally. People also [report violations] just because it is the right thing to do. Then there are some people who just have a personal vendetta.”
Those calls can be problematic in that the callers’ main motivation is simply to hassle their neighbor or the person hunting on a nearby property, for example. They can result in conservation officers spending their time chasing complaints that don’t lead to anything. “That does happen,” Quandt said. “In those cases, the officer has to sift through everything and determine what’s going on.”
And yet, he still sings the praises of the program, noting each conservation officer patrols an area that includes hundreds of square miles.
“We’re spread thin, so it’s really helpful when people take advantage of it,” Quandt said.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracking suspicious activity
A glance at some data from Turn In Poachers. Note that the program typically sees a surge in calls in November.
Total TIP calls: 613
Referred to conservation officers 576
Arrests made: 141
Most arrests: 48 (fishing)
Rewards paid: $3,225
Total TIPS calls: 1,197
Referred to conservation officers: 1,169
Arrests made: 281
Most arrests: 158 (deer-related)
Rewards paid: $2,400
Source: Turn in Poachers