HOLDEN — Standing atop a remote southern West Virginia hilltop, Jacob Miller took out a pair of binoculars and scanned the surrounding slopes.
“At this time of year, I spend a lot of time looking for illegal ATV traffic,” said Miller, a Natural Resources Police Officer. “I’m also watching for people who might be setting up bait sites or permanent tree stands.”
Deer-hunting seasons don’t open until Sept. 28, but for law enforcement officers, preparation has already begun.
One of Miller’s primary responsibilities is to patrol more than 42,000 acres of state-managed hunting land. His responsibilities include portions of the 32,000-acre Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, the 12,856-acre Laurel Lake WMA and the 4,947-acre Big South WMA, all located in Logan and Mingo counties.
All the activities Miller looks for — ATV usage, wildlife baiting and establishment of permanent tree stands — are illegal on WMAs. They persist on the tracts Miller patrols because those lands only recently came under state ownership or management.
Before then, they were owned by mining and timber companies that leased them to hunters who used ATVs, maintained bait sites and set up permanent stands.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Miller said. “These are big areas, with reputations for producing trophy bucks, and there are people willing to break the law to get at those bucks.”
Patrolling public lands for signs of illegal activity is only one component of officers’ pre-season preparation. Miller’s supervisor, NRP Capt. Terry Ballard, said there are other components the public never sees.
“Really, first and foremost, we try to make sure all our equipment is in good shape well before hunting seasons begin,” Ballard explained. “We try to make sure our vehicle maintenance is up-to-date, and that all the vehicles have good tires. That’s really important, because our officers are out in the woods banging around in those vehicles. They have to have vehicles they can rely on.”
NRP administrators also focus on officers’ weapons by scheduling a firearms-qualification session to take place before hunting seasons get going.
“That’s kind of a twofold thing,” Ballard said. “One, it’s required of us to do a couple of times a year; but also, it makes us more aware to have our weapons cleaned up and in top working order. We do that because we know our weapons are going to get exposed to the elements. We’re going to be out in the rain and the snow, lying around in the brush and maybe even falling down and getting [a weapon] full of mud.”
Communication equipment gets checked, too, but Ballard said it’s much less a concern now than it was a couple of decades ago.
“When I was a young officer, we had low-band radios that didn’t work in 40 to 50 percent of the county,” he recalled. “In the last 6 to 8 years, we’ve come a long way toward getting our communications where they should be.
“We have better communications equipment now than we’ve ever had. With our [vehicle] radios or our handhelds, we’re now able to talk to any police department, sheriff’s department and state police detachment anywhere in the state. We can also communicate with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. It’s pretty much state-of-the-art, and it’s been a great benefit to us.”
Before every hunting season, Ballard and other district administrators meet with their field officers to go over year-to-year changes to the state’s hunting regulations.
“We try to get the officers to understand the new laws and how they’re going to affect people,” he said. “Then we figure out how well the public has been informed about the laws and, with that in mind, how we’re going to enforce them.”
A few changes, he added, always seem to manage to escape the public’s attention.
“A lot of times their first information about a new regulation comes from when we check them, and they say, ‘Oh. Well, I didn’t know that,’” Ballard said. “In our hunter-education classes, we encourage people to read the regulations so they can stay out of trouble, but they don’t always do that. We try to keep that in mind, especially when we’re enforcing new laws or regulations.”
At their district meetings, the officers also go over significant changes to private and public property boundaries.
“We’ve bought a lot of public hunting areas in the past few years,” Ballard said. “We have to know where the boundaries lie. Also, whenever a new lease comes into play — either by a private individual or a club — we need to know about that.”
Private landowners can fill out request-for-enforcement forms that allow NRP officers to enter their properties to make sure all the people hunting there have permission to do so.
“There are new leases and new landowners every year,” Ballard said. “We have to stay up to date on all that.”
Officers also consider conditions that, at first glance, might not seem relevant to law enforcement.
“The amount of mast [wild nut and fruit crops] changes from year to year,” Ballard explained. “Those changes might cause animals to be out in fields more than they otherwise would be. In mast failure years, we know spotlighting complaints are going to go up, so we try to concentrate on night patrols.”
Tech-savvy officers also pay close attention to social-media traffic.
“That’s something that has come a long way during my career,” Ballard said. “We monitor social media closely, because sometimes it lets us know things are going to happen before they happen.”
And finally, Ballard said, officers spend a portion of their preseason preparation time fashioning and repairing animated whitetail decoys, colloquially referred to as “Robo Deer.”
“Sometimes they get shot up [by would-be poachers], so we have to make sure they’re in working order,” Ballard added.
Asked if West Virginians should expect to see any Robo Deer sting operations this fall, Ballard smiled and said, “Maybe.”
Keeping would-be poachers guessing, it would seem, might be yet another component to officers’ preseason preparation.