WIMAUMA — On a sunny and warm fall morning, all appears peaceful in rural southeastern Hillsborough County.
Farmers survey citrus crops while their workers tend to the orchards. Cattle graze in the fields, ranch hands care for property and equipment, and quiet envelops the small homes and farms that dot the landscape.
But lately, poachers and thieves have marred this country serenity, killing animals on private property and stealing equipment. The problem has grown so persistent that the sound of shots echo through night and early morning hours, and it's not uncommon to find cut fences as violators encroach onto private properties.
A task force made up of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Agricultural Crime Unit and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission continues to monitor the poaching problem.
Last month, the task force arrested a 19-year-old Mulberry man. Authorities charged Dalton Gant with felony armed trespassing after arresting him near Bethlehem Road and Albritton Road for poaching a deer on private property.
Deputies found a pickup truck known to be used by poachers hidden in the woods. It contained hunting equipment and remnants of recently killed animals.
The task force operation centers primarily on ending the illegal hunting of deer, but perpetrators also trespass to hunt pigs and turkey and to net fish, according to Sgt. Ed Raburn with HCSO's Homeland Security Division. Raburn says the hunters will shoot anything they see whenever and wherever they see it as long as it's convenient.
"It's a crime of opportunity," Raburn said. "People don't have access to land to hunt on or don't want to travel to a place to hunt, but they live in close proximity to private property or public land where hunting isn't allowed.
"When they trespass on this property to hunt, the poaching occurs."
Hunters turn to poaching for a number of reasons. Some hunt for trophies, thrill or meat. When the situation becomes lucrative, the meat can be sold for profit, as was the case in Central Florida last November, when state wildlife agents arrested 10 people suspected of being members of a Florida poaching ring shipping thousands of pounds of illegal meat around the country. The shipments included everything from deer to turkeys and even armadillos.
Farmers and ranchers worry about the associated safety risks that accompany the crime of poaching. They fear their families and their employees who work outdoors in the fields could be harmed by stray bullets, since some poachers will shoot from passing cars on the road.
They also worry about livestock getting loose and running astray on private property and county roads, when poachers cut through their fences.
The small farmers, ranch hands and homeowners in rural southeastern Hillsborough County have become moving targets to poachers.
Some of the farmers pursue raccoons and opossums that can attack their chickens, but now the shots they hear in the dark may come from poachers instead of ranchers chasing pests.
Jack Sizemore, who is part of a family business that owns 700 acres of strawberries, citrus and watermelon farms in the Wimauma area, says he sees evidence of poaching.
"You see illegal dumping, trash, carcasses, damaged property from four-wheel pickups running things over, and fences that have been cut," Sizemore said, standing next to Jaymar Produce Co., a packing operation he owns on State Road 674 in Wimauma.
"Word of mouth and communication are what's needed to stop the poaching," Sizemore added. "When the heat is on, everybody gets quiet. In my opinion, the best defense against anything like this is your neighbors. If you see anything odd, report it. A fence, a gate and a lock only work for honest folks."
Besides poaching, thieves target area farmers and ranchers. Sizemore has had everything from sprinklers and pesticides, to diesel fuel and batteries from power units stolen from his farms.
Thieves and poachers also have been known to encroach on properties with dogs in the middle of the night in pursuit of deer. They've use Global Positioning Systems to guide their way on the sprawling ranches.
Authorities encourage the farmers to be vigilant and alert.
"Putting a stop to this behavior will certainly have an impact on the safety of our citizens as well as the environment," Raburn noted. "It's a worthy investment in our community."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.