ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Federal wildlife agents are using a new weapon in their battle against big-game poachers - the poachers themselves.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program is turning convicted poachers into video preachers. Violators tell fellow hunters and hunting guides about the impact of the illegal killing of grizzlies, wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, elk and other big game and waterfowl in Alaska and the West.
One of the biggest guns among the new anti-poaching crusaders is longtime Alaska guide and outfitter Ron Hayes. Hayes, who was convicted in 1987 of illegally hunting grizzly bears by airplane, served two years in prison, forfeited several aircraft, paid thousands of dollars in fines and lost his hunting privilege.
``He was probably the most notorious bandit guide that ever lived,'' says Dave Hall, a New Orleans-based agent of the Fish and Wildlife Service who is organizing the video project.
Hall visited Hayes several times in prison and helped show him the error of his ways. On Hall's urging, Hayes agreed to help make a 30-minute video last summer for the service's use and to cooperate with a National Geographic Society television documentary on poaching to be broadcast next spring.
Several other convicted poachers have agreed to appear in the agency's videos.
``This is the only way we can make conservation enforcement effective,'' Hall said.
Alaska has 54.5 million acres of national parkland and just 11 patrol rangers. That comes to nearly 5 million acres per ranger.
The National Parks and Conservation Association and some wildlife officials contend that poaching harms big game by depleting the strongest animals in the species, reducing the quality of the gene pool. Other officials say there is not enough biological evidence to support that conclusion.
Hall has put his emphasis on guides because Alaska prohibits nonresidents from hunting big game without the services of one of the approximately 450 guide-outfitters in the state.
For the geographic-society project filmed during the summer, Hayes re-created his poaching technique on the Katmai National Park and Preserve by herding a grizzly to a hunting party with his airplane.
In a startling admission, Hayes said in the film that of the 37 grizzlies he helped hunters place in the Boone and Crockett Club's record book, every one was shot after being herded illegally to the hunter with a plane.
The National Geographic film will be broadcast this spring as one of four segments on poaching in its ``Explorer'' series. Other segments will deal with poaching of waterfowl and elk and a national overview of the problem.
Because of Alaska's size and the number of trophy animals hunted, poaching in the state has become a major problem.
Not all poaching is for sport.
Some hunters illegally kill big game for selected body parts. Bear gallbladders are used in some Asian cultures for medical purposes, bear claws are used to make jewelry, and caribou antlers are ground up to make powdered potions said to enhance sex.
Federal and state officials, however, are most concerned about trophy poachers.
The guides are under great pressure to produce trophy animals - and have a huge financial stake in hunters' success. Guides get paid on a per animal basis and can receive $7,000 or more for a Dall sheep and between $8,000 and $10,000 for a grizzly, according to Jim Hannah, a National Park Service district ranger in the 13 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.