By Gwen Albers
Despite having only one arm, Rick Thomas can hunt with a bow. He uses his mouth.
But the 40-year-old from Clayton, Ga., has not yet mastered illegally shooting a deer while shining a spotlight on the animal.
“It’s impossible,” Thomas told more than 350 during a Saturday forum held in response to a North Carolina-Georgia poaching sting that resulted in the arrest of 81 people in February 2013.
“They (undercover agents) killed four deer with me in the vehicle with a spotlight,” said Thomas, who lost his right arm while turkey hunting 27 years ago.
Entitled “Operation Something Bruin,” the four-year operation involved federal and state agents. The operation was a joint effort of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. Undercover officers documented 10 bears that were killed illegally, six in North Carolina and four in Georgia.
The sting also earned Sgt. Chad Arnold with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission the title of Wildlife Enforcement Officer of the Year from the state Wildlife Federation.
Hosted by Southeastern Hunters Sportsmen Alliance at the Swain County Center of the Arts, Saturday's forum featured defendants and family members, some of whom traveled more than 300 miles.
They shared accounts of undercover agents, including Arnold, shooting bears. Officers in bulletproof vests with assault rifles doing four- to five-hour searches of their homes. And state charges being dropped, only to be refiled by the feds.
Geoff Cantrell, public information officer with the Division of Law Enforcement with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, said until all of the cases are final, no comment will be made.
"We are aware of the criticism, but until those arrested are given a verdict in a court of law, we will not debate Operation Something Bruin in the court of public opinion," Cantrell said.
Everyone who spoke asked attending lawmakers — state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; state Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood; and Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee — for an investigation into “Operation Something Bruin.”
“I assure you I will look into this,” Davis said.
“I look forward to pursuing this investigation,” Queen added.
Hicks, who in August was appointed to the state Wildlife Resource Commission, noted the arrests resulted in some “significant flaws.”
“What I’ve seen is there were some serious issues in the process utilized,” said Hicks. “I know there are a lot of emotions here. My intent is to do the best I can."
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has been contacted by a number of people on this issue, said the lawmaker's spokeswoman Emily Miller.
"We will be communicating with the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior to ensure that no rules or regulations were violated."