DAVE HALL HOISTS A VIDEO CAMERA to his shoulder and focuses on Dennis Treitler. “Dennis, tell me about how you used to poach wildlife,” he says. As the tape rolls, Treitler, a fourth-generation Louisiana marsh man, tugs at his cap and looks around the lush swamp behind his trailer on Delacroix Island, 25 miles southeast of New Orleans. “I grew up here,” he says, his voice a silky drawl. “We killed ducks by the thousands. We hunted deer at night, shining them with spotlights. We killed alligators and night herons and rabbits. We never paid attention to game laws.”
Dave Hall lowers the camera, and Treitler, 45 and long one of the bayou’s most notorious outlaws, shakes his head and lets out a loud cackle. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “you never could have made me believe I would be talking to you like this. You could have driven bamboo points under my fingernails. Ain’t no way in God’s Earth I’d have thought I’d be spilling my guts to a game warden. much less the whole world.”
Twenty years ago Treitler hadn’t run into Dave Hall. One of 200-odd special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hall has devised a unique program to transform convicted poachers into crusaders for legal hunting and sound game management. “I call it Poachers to Preachers,” says Hall, who recruits his video stars from accused and convicted game killers. Hall converts—or “turns”—them to his cause and gets them to confess their crimes against nature for the camera, with moral suasion, cold logic and plea bargains. “These people are folk heroes in their communities,” says Hall, 53. “Sending them to jail doesn’t change the behavior of their friends. I want to use them to educate their peers that slaughtering America’s wildlife is legally and socially unacceptable.”
Hall’s program is just one of the innovations that have made him a legend in wildlife law enforcement. During the 1970s his undercover operations against alligator poachers helped save the species from extinction. In the ’80s he worked to break the illegal trade in Alaskan walrus ivory. “Man has been blindly ignorant about the creatures that surround him,” says Hall. “We’ve been almost total idiots in our actions toward wildlife.”
Hall’s rambling house in Slidell, La., is filled with conservation awards, duck decoys he has carved and water-colors he has painted of wildlife. In his desk drawer is an offer from Jane Alexander for a film based on his life. This month Hall is the subject of a new book, Game Wars. The attraction is obvious: Hall’s is a story of a man with a mission. “Stopping wildlife violation is something that consumes me,” says Hall. “Most of us game wardens believe that if we weren’t out there, not much wildlife would survive.”
Hall may be right. Today a $200 million illegal market in endangered species threatens both black bears—whose gall bladders can fetch $5,000 an ounce in Asia, where they are used medicinally—and elk, whose antlers are ground and sold as aphrodisiacs. Sea turtles, walrus and eagles are poached for their shells, tusks and feathers. “People think of wildlife crime as victimless crime,” says Hall’s boss, John Doggett, chief of Fish and Wildlife’s Paw Enforcement Division. “Animals don’t come in and file complaints. What Hall is doing is trying to halt the wholesale destruction of America’s natural resources.”
It is a dangerous assignment.
“There’s an element of craziness to game wardens,” says Whitney Tilt, director of the Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which awarded Hall its Guy Bradley Award for Paw Enforcement this year. “They exist on a lot of coffee and very little sleep. They need nerves of steel and the self-esteem of a jet pilot. Dave Hall is often out in the bayou in 40 mph winds, alone, chasing people who are armed, dangerous and wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.”
Hall seems undaunted by this.
“What I do is most spontaneous, he says. “I don’t think about the dangers or political consequences.” Take the Alaskan walrus caper, for example. In 1980, when the Soviet Union complained to the U.S. that headless walruses were washing up on Siberian beaches, Hall volunteered to go undercover to crack the criminal ring believed to be selling walrus ivory. He recruited William Vaughn Doak, the owner of an animal artifacts store in New Orleans’s French Quarter, to front as his partner. Hall assumed the identity of Dave Hayes, a swashbuckling Texas oil-field investor who wanted to invest his money in ivory.
Hall and Doak embarked on a number of buying trips to Alaska, fingering ivory sellers from Hell’s Angels to Fish and Wildlife biologists. Often, Hall went buying alone. “It was scary,” he says. “These guys would say, ‘I hope that’s not a tape recorder in your pocket.’ I’d look at them and say, ‘What the hell you playin’, cops and robbers?’ Then I’d reach in my pocket and pull my gun on them. It scared ’em to hell. All the time that tape recorder was runnin’ pretty as you please.”
Hall scored big. On Feb. 4, 1981, Fish and Wildlife agents converged on walrus-ivory dealers between Alaska and Hawaii, confiscating guns, drugs and five tons of ivory. “There are basically two types of game wardens,” says Game Wars author Marc Reisner, who spent six years on and off observing Hall. “One is the outdoor equivalent of the cop who hands out speeding tickets. Then there are people who are wild and adventurous, motivated by a love of danger. Dave is a fundamentally rebellious person who’s afraid of that side of himself. In a strange twist, his undercover side allows him to live that life while still enforcing the law.”
Hall admits to a kinship with the poachers. He loves nothing better than to jaw with Treitler; another ex-poacher, Jerry Fabacher, is his favorite hunting partner. “Despite their crimes, lots of these poachers have a real feeling for the earth and wildlife,” says Hall. “They love duck hunting, same as I do. If hunting and fishing are done in the spirit of fair chase and within the confines of the laws, wildlife will be enhanced, not jeopardized. Hunters were the foundation of wildlife conservation, and without that interest there would be much less habitat left in the U.S.”
Treitler reached that conclusion after Hall began paying him a series of visits back in 1972. “First time I met him, he had his little uniform on,” laughs Treitler. “He looked like he had walked out of a Sears catalog. He came over and asked me to be in his program. A couple of my buddies had just gone to prison for poaching. We talked. He said, ‘Look at the wildlife you had when you were a kid. Look at what you got now. Look at where it’s going from here, at what your kids will have.’ It didn’t take long to convert me. This year I even stopped hunting before I took my limit.”
Hall’s ability to talk poachers’ language derives from his own rural background in Jackson, Miss. His father, a representative for the Simmons furniture company, and his mother, a housewife, raised him and his sister outdoors, hunting and fishing. Hall taught himself decoy carving, bird calling and taxidermy. As a boy, he sold bullfrogs to local restaurants for pocket money. It was a duck-hunting trip with his father when he was 15 that decided Hall on his vocation. “We were in a duck blind on a sandbar,” he recalls. “A federal game warden came up to us in his boat. He looked at our licenses and checked how many ducks we had. It was his demeanor and the feeling I got that he was a responsible person who had a mission. I turned to my dad and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
Hall’s father advised him to go to Mississippi State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, later getting a master’s in wildlife management. In 1962 he married a high school classmate, Sarah Ann Warnack, and the newlyweds moved to the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge in Pollandale, Miss., where Hall was to be assistant refuge manager. “It was quite a shock,” admits Sarah Ann, a city girl. “Being newly married, you can overcome a lot.”
Hall joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1962 and was posted to Louisiana in 1976. Rich in wildlife, the state was rich in wildlife outlaws as well. Hall packed off scores of poachers to prison every year—many as the result of undercover work. He once posed as an outdoor writer for Waterfowler’s World magazine in order to bust a gang of “goose creepers”—hunters who sneak up on geese feeding in rice fields. Hall persuaded them to take him along. He helped them keep a lookout for game wardens, then filmed them as they opened fire on an enormous, unsuspecting flock. He kept filming as the hunters ran after crippled birds, twirling them over their heads until their necks broke. He filmed them as they filled the back of the pickup truck with dead geese. “Then,” says Hall with satisfaction, “we rolled the gold [pulled out badges] on them. We arrested the suckers.”
Hall knows that his job has taken a high toll on his family. “In the ’70s I spent seven straight summers in Canada working on waterfowl surveys,” he says. “By the time I got back each fall, hunting season would open, and I’d hit the road again.” Sarah Ann, a beauty consultant at J.C. Penney, and his two children, Dave Jr., now 28, a local sheriff, and Pam, 25, a recent college grad, saw little of him. “It was hard at times,” says Sarah Ann, who adds that the respect she and Dave share for each other’s interests strengthened their marriage. Says Hall: “I’m lucky that both my kids and my wife picked up on the good in what I was trying to do.”
But Hall hasn’t always sailed smoothly through bureaucratic waters. In the 1970s he angered Fish and Wildlife brass by condemning the oil industry and the Army Corps of Engineers for damaging Louisiana’s wetlands, America’s prime waterfowl habitat. “It might have gotten other people fired,” says a friend. “Dave has some important protectors in the bureaucracy and in the conservation movement.”
Hall has survived, and he and his cast of bad-boy preachers are making headway in the war against wildlife poaching. In June 1989, Hall took Dennis Treitler up to Washington, D.C., to rattle Ducks Unlimited’s International Waterfowl Symposium. “This prominent lawyer in New Orleans bought me a suit—a tailor-made suit!—and shoes,” says Treitler. “It was the first suit I ever owned. Freaked me out. I only wore it once. I’m scared to death of it.
“But I’m going to tell you what. When I got up in front of those people, 2,000 refuge managers, hunters and biologists, I felt like I was at peace with the world. I got a standing ovation. President Bush was there, and he shook my hand. It was better than all the illegal ducks I ever killed. It was the greatest feeling in the world—and I have Dave Hall to thank.”