Citizen involvement was the secret weapon that enabled conservation agents to catch dozens of poachers violating turkey hunting regulations before and during this year's spring turkey season. The net result was more than $16,000 in fines.Hunters who were tired of having poachers steal wild turkeys by illegal and unsporting means planted the seed for the operation. Their complaints about rampant poaching in a few Ozark counties galvanized local conservation agents to take action. Then a second group of citizens, the Missouri Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), stepped in to turn that outrage into action.With a $14,000 grant from the NWTF, the Missouri Department of Conservation organized an operation to educate ethical hunters about hunting regulations and to catch poachers on public and private land.The NWTF grant paid for specialized equipment and helped pay the costs of hundreds of hours of overtime spent catching poachers before turkey season opened and during the three-week season.The Conservation Department put poachers on notice in February with news releases touting the operation and even announcing that the effort would focus primarily on the area south of the Missouri River. Meanwhile, agents were laying the groundwork for an intensive enforcement effort, gathering intelligence through undercover operatives. As the season approached, agents took to the air in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. They focused night-vision goggles and infrared sensors on potential trouble spots. They put out turkey decoys and other bait to attract turkeys. By the time the season opened, they already had made 26 arrests.When the season opened, agents again made their intent clear with high-profile saturation patrols by uniformed agents. On the second day of the season, they conducted road checks to catch poachers who hunted without permits or killed more than their limit of turkeys. Arrests during the season totaled 58.A few of the cases remain to be settled in court, but most have been completed with fines and other penalties. Fines and court costs ordered to date exceed $16,400. That's not the end of the bad news for poachers, however. In Howell County, Associate Circuit Court Judge David Evans sentenced two men each to 20 hours of community service and a year of supervised probation.A Wright County man was caught killing a turkey on opening day of the spring season while his hunting privileges were revoked. Wright County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Tyrell sought stiff penalties in the case, and Associate Circuit Court Judge Noble Leighton sentenced the man to 48 hours in jail and a $250 fine. Conservation Commission policy dictates that his hunting privileges automatically will be revoked for an extra year. That really hurts, because Missouri belongs to the Interstate Violator's Compact. Under that agreement, hunters whose privileges are suspended here can't buy a permit in any of the other 16 member states.The final day of the Spring 2002 turkey season signaled the end of a highly effective education and resource law enforcement effort in the Ozarks. The idea for the comprehensive and innovative strategy came when Ozark residents complained of violations on public and private land during the spring season and poaching outside the hunting season.Conservation agents in the Ozark Protection Region brought these concerns to a strategy session and developed a plan to use all the resources at their disposal to achieve two goals. One was encouraging hunters to comply with regulations. The other was educating the public about turkey hunting violations. Members of the Missouri Chapter of the NWTF and the NWTF Regional Supervisor Dave Murphy met with Protection personnel and pledged $14,000 for the effort.Conservation Department Ozark Unit Protection Field Chief Terry Roberson said the operation should send a message to poachers and to law-abiding hunters."To those 99 percent of hunters who obey the law, we're saying that we appreciate their support in protecting this precious resource," said Roberson. "We know they are doing it right, and we thank them for supporting this special operation. To those who don't obey the law, we're saying that their behavior isn't acceptable. We don't accept it, and neither do ethical hunters. And between the real hunters and the Conservation Department, we're going to make it darned hard to steal game and get away with it."