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Antlers in snow

Behind the Badge

With a Little Luck

District Game Warden Shawn Sperling

In March 2019, I was asked to assist with an ongoing investigation that involved a massive number of poached deer around the White Earth to Tioga area. The game wardens of the area had been working the case since early 2018.

Game warden Raasakka, out of Stanley, had received some information that the suspects of the case were getting nervous that the wardens were onto them, so they decided to hide the antlers in a place they suspected no one would ever find.

Warden Snyder and I were asked to help with the recovery of the antlers.

That information was just what was needed for a break in the case, but there was a problem…in true North Dakota fashion, the level of snow we had gotten that year was quite significant.

Due to this complication, we knew this search would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Wardens Raasakka, Snyder and I got to work and set up a game plan on how to locate the antlers.

Warden Snyder and I were quite curious on how we were going to pull this off given no coordinates and the level of snow, but then we found out one important piece of information that warden Raasakka somehow forgot to mention – he knew approximately where the antlers were hidden.

Warden Raasakka told us of the event that transpired only the day prior.

He started the story by telling us that had met with the reporting party and that she told him she knew where the illegal antlers were hidden.

When asked how she knew where they were, she admitted to being with the suspects on the night the deer antlers were hidden.

Of course, as any warden would be, warden Raasakka was thrilled to hear this news, but there was just one thing that would make it slightly more complicated, she happened to be 7 months pregnant at the time.

With him having no idea of the level of snow in the location of the antlers, warden Raasakka was concerned with taking her with him to assist and then getting them stuck or worse.

But knowing just how important this piece of evidence would be for the investigation, he asked if she would be okay with assisting in the recovery of the antlers by bringing him to their location.

She agreed. And reassured him that she would be fine and wanted to help, so off they went.

Thinking this would be a quick trip, warden Raasakka told us how he began to drive down the two track road that was covered in a manageable level of snow.

He said the further down the road they went, the deeper the snow became, so he made the determination to call off the search and turn back due to the road condition.

He got his truck turned around and started to head back when his patrol vehicle became stuck. Warden Raasakka said he got out of his truck, began shoveling until he couldn’t handle the elements any longer and then he’d got back in his truck for warmth.

He said he was in for a while before he realized that something wasn’t quite right with his pregnant passenger. He asked her if everything was alright to which she replied, “No. I think I’m having contractions!”

His initial gut fear had just come true and with that, as he tells it, he suddenly had a burst of energy and managed to get them unstuck in no time.

On the morning of March 5, 2019, Warden Snyder and I headed out with our tracked UTV to meet warden Raasakka at the approximate antler location just west of Tioga.

Since warden Raasakka and the reporting party weren’t able to make it to the exact spot of the antlers, we went off of the landmark description given from the reporting party.

Because of this, we knew finding the illegal antlers, especially buried under feet of snow, was going to prove to be a difficult task.

Warden Raasakka told us “young guys” to grab shovels and start digging, while he used the UTV to make passes through the deep snow in hopes of dislodging the antlers.

After what seemed like hours of digging in subzero temperature, the frustration began to set in. I told myself that I needed to stop, take a breath, and start thinking more strategically.

“If I were a poacher, where would I hide my illegal prize possessions?”

The first place that came to my mind would be in the deepest part of the cattail slough that had been drifted over numerous times.

It would be the perfect spot.

So I regrouped, moved locations, and started digging. After what seemed like several feet and to no avail, I was beginning to rethink my plan. I knew I needed a break, so decided to pull myself from the cattails for a little breather.

I looked up to see warden Snyder standing six feet above me on top of the cattails.

I watched him take a step forward with his left foot and then all of a sudden disappear into the snow.

My first thought was that of concern, but that quickly transitioned into laughter. Warden Snyder emerged from the snow with a dumbfounded look on his face and said, “NO WAY!”

I remember looking at him thinking, “well that’s a dumb thing to say after falling multiple feet in snow.”

He then proceeded to excitingly tell me that he had fallen directly onto the six sets of antlers. I couldn’t believe his blind luck.

I told him, “DO NOT MOVE” and I immediately returned to the area I had just emerged from.

I dug just a bit more and shortly found that I had stopped just shy of the antlers.

If I would’ve just dug another 10 inches forward, I would’ve been the first to find them. But instead, warden Snyder’s dumb luck won this round.

We called warden Raasakka over and managed to photograph, collect and evidence six sets of deer antlers that had been skull capped and had rope tied to several of the antlers for display.

We finally headed back home with a successful day under our belts and then we received even more gratifying news.

The suspected poachers had returned to the area that evening in hopes that the antlers would still be there.

I can about image the gut punch feeling they felt, knowing that they were beat to their “hidden” spot by only a few hours.

Many lessons were learned that day, but there were two main ones that we will never forget: sometimes all you need is a little blind luck and whatever you do, don’t anger a pregnant lady!

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