Is Poaching Becoming Epidemic?

Poaching and antler theft incidents have more than quadrupled in the past 40 years. Comparably, law-enforcement budgets have not kept up with inflation.

By Les Davenport

deer hunting poached buckIt is a rare deer hunter who does not know at least one person who has had a deer, antlers or a shoulder mount stolen from them at some point in their life. It’s even more rare to find a hunter who does not know about a trophy buck that was poached in their home county.

This troubling subject brings forth myriad questions.

•Why is this problem growing progressively worse each year?
•Why can’t law enforcement slow the tide?
•Why are repeat offenders … repeat offenders?

Unfortunately, those questions give rise to answers in the form of more questions.

•Is it the escalating worth of antlers?
•Is it the slumping economy?
•Are they merely “crimes of opportunity” where normally ethical hunters slip up when temptation gets the best of them?
•Are many of these crimes being committed by wayward teenagers?
•Are some antler thefts related to the illegal drug trade?
•Is the pressure of being a pro-staffer or wannabe video hero causing some of this plague?
•Is there not enough law enforcement personnel to keep and eye on rural America?
•Does some of the blame fall onto the victims themselves?

Concerning the second set of questions, I will submit the answer is “Yes” to all them!

Sea of Change
Many aspects of deer hunting have gradually changed over the past 40 years. The worth of antlers has skyrocketed tenfold; the prestige in the deer world of harvesting a world-class whitetail has ramped up beyond belief; and the politically based importance of protecting whitetails has taken a back seat in state budgets.

What’s really disturbing is the increasing number of those in authority who have become part of this plague. For example, two state troopers from Michigan recently plea-bargained a felony charge of poaching a buck out of season — while on duty — to reduce the offense to a misdemeanor. This was obviously a case of cops getting a break they did not deserve. It’s so ironic and so wrong. These are individuals we entrust to uphold the law.

It’s amazing to find that Google holds 70 active pages of poaching articles. Many of these cases involve individuals from mainstream media, political offices and law-enforcement groups who were caught poaching trophy-caliber white-tailed bucks.

Although the greatest percent of members in these groups are dedicated, moral, and ethical whitetail hunters, why would even a small percentage of them risk a job, possible arrest, or the embarrassment of being caught stealing wildlife? I’d say it is for the same reasons any citizen does: prestige, excitement, financial gain … or a moment of pure stupidity.

More Trophies, Fewer Wardens
Poaching and antler theft incidents have more than quadrupled in the last 40 years. Comparably, law-enforcement budgets have not kept up with inflation, causing fewer conservation officers in the field every year. The dwindling presence of county, state and federal law enforcement in rural areas due to budget cuts has also caused poachers and antler thieves to become more brazen.

Our county courts have grown so overburdened with drug and domestic violence prosecutions that major poaching and antler thefts are quickly reduced to misdemeanors via plea bargains — like the aforementioned Michigan case. Yes, wildlife fines for poaching trophy-class bucks have increased in most states, but not nearly to a high enough level for deterring hard-core poachers. Regrettably, we seem to have unknowingly elected politicians who have no ambition for legislating even more stringent fines that could ebb poaching.

Here’s an idea: All states should have a “three-strikes and you’re out” wildlife law that applies to poaching offenses.

First offense: The offender is given three days in jail, a stiff fine, revocation of hunting rights for one year and mandatory monthly classes with a qualified conservation officer for one year.

Second offense: A repeat offender receives a month in jail, confiscation and sale of any weapon, equipment, or vehicle used during the crime, an even stiffer fine, revocation of a hunting license for five years, and additional classes with a warden.

Third offense: The offender is considered “hard core” and receives three years behind bars with no chance of parole. They would also have to compensate the state wildlife agency for the wildlife loss.

I believe occasional enforcement of a three-strike law would drastically reduce repeat offenses.  However, I’m enough of a realist to know that such laws will likely never see the light of day. The bottom line: It’s up to each of us to help slow this growing plague.

Support Your Local Game Warden
If you have information about deer poaching or home invasion for the purpose of antler theft, don’t sit on the sidelines and gossip about it. Report it!
These two crimes fall under different jurisdictions. Poaching deer is a wildlife violation, so call a warden. The theft of antlers (legally collected) or a mounted deer (legally harvested) is investigated and prosecuted through city, village or county authorities. Not until a poached deer or stolen mount crosses state lines does state and federal authority usually kick in.

All state wildlife, city and county law enforcement agencies post hot lines for reporting poaching and theft. Providing tips can be done anonymously and, in some cases, rewards are offered. Reporting an infraction helps put law enforcement in lawbreaker’s arena.

“When reporting a poaching incident anonymously, be sure to give as many details as possible about the illegal activity and the perpetrators,” said Ohio Conservation Officer Robert Nelson. He also advises callers to give the exact details of the situation and the location so the incident can be thoroughly investigated.

Most wardens patrol between 160 and 1,000 square miles. Essential enforcement duties for wardens include enforcing wildlife, criminal, vehicle and drug laws on private and public lands and waters. They also enforce timber, endangered species, snowmobile, fur-buyer, taxidermist, and fish market laws and regulations.

Non-enforcement duties for wardens include speaking at sport clubs, civic meetings and  school activities; staffing informational booths at major sports, travel and boating expositions; assisting with hunting, boating and snowmobiling safety education programs; helping other law-enforcement agencies with emergency and rescue situations; and supporting internship programs for wildlife officer recruitment.

On top of all these job obligations, it’s mandatory for wardens to write full reports on all major law infractions, document vehicle and equipment work and maintenance, and record all overtime activity (if overtime money is even in the budget).

The average game warden’s time in the field at night during fall and winter only amounts to about 20 percent of their total on-shift hours for the year. Help them be in the right place at the right time!

Neighborhood Watch Groups
Iowa is rich with trophy whitetails and ethical hunters. Unfortunately, it also has an overabundance of poachers and antler thieves.

One of the most noted neighborhood watch groups in Iowa was formed by famous hunting brothers Barry and Gene Wensel. They moved to southern Iowa from Montana several years ago in hopes of harvesting giant Midwestern bucks. Although the Wensels have managed their property well and have harvested some big whitetails, they began wondering if it was worth the hassle, because they were continually encountering poaching and theft problems. The brothers finally took a stand after losing 33 of their locked-and-chained tree stands to thieves and finding eight mature bucks dead on their property … with no heads.

The Wensels asked neighbors to watch for strange vehicles in the area and jot down license-plate numbers. They also asked for donations for a reward fund that would pay for information leading to the conviction of the poachers and thieves. Ten thousand dollars was raised and offered to the public. Fliers were posted in area businesses.

A sting eventually netted a group of hard core Florida-based poachers. The tree-stand thefts were never prosecuted. Thievery of the Wensels’ stands and hundreds of others in southern Iowa were reportedly being carried out by a group of 20-year-olds involved in drugs. It was thought that the stolen stands were being sold at a popular Missouri flea market. However, an Iowa warden told the Wensels the neighborhood watch program helped cut poaching incidents in the area by more than 50 percent.

While interviewing wardens for this article, I found it quite interesting to learn that poachers are often turned in by their own relatives. This is more prevalent in states that protect the identity of all informants.

Another area-wide neighborhood watch occurred in southeastern Iowa by Paul Fountain and his fellow landowners. It entailed the planting of shed antlers with trail cameras hidden nearby.

One of the watch participants put out four cameras on a large parcel in hopes of catching a known trespasser. He got photos of three different shed poachers. One could not be identified, but the other two were recognized and prosecuted. Some of the cameras used in that sting were connected via satellite technology and sent photos to a computer immediately upon being snapped. Some of the antler poachers who also stole the cameras were prosecuted for theft over $300 — a felony that comes with jail time!

Get Involved
Be the first in your area to organize a neighborhood watch against poaching and antler theft. It’s important to be collective about not giving a break or warning to poachers, thieves or trespassers.

The Wensels learned this lesson all too well. The teenage son of a neighbor was caught exiting the Wensel property with several illegally obtained sheds. The Wensels decided not to prosecute for trespassing. Instead, Barry had the county sheriff deliver a warning to the parents.

Inform your warden about any neighborhood watch being organized; most will be glad to meet with your group and provide details on what to watch for.
Do not — under any circumstance — chase a poacher or antler thief. Years ago, in my home county, a farmer chased two suspected poachers at high speeds. The poachers wrecked their vehicle during the chase and sustained major injuries. They sued the farmer, and he was held liable for the hospital bills and vehicle damage. He didn’t receive any jail time, but that was a possibility.

An Ounce of Prevention
Jack Bell of Burlington, Iowa, and many of his fellow Iowans lost Boone-and-Crockett-class deer mounts to an organized group of thugs suspected to be working out of Waterloo. Even though Iowa authorities were almost certain who the thieves were, there was never enough law-enforcement staffing assigned to the task to catch these criminals.

Years after the theft of Bell’s buck, it was reported the mount hung on the wall of a convicted felon living in northern Missouri. The caller reported the sighting to an Iowa officer. This occurred almost a year ago, but the felon’s house has yet to be searched. Ironically, the Missouri man could be directly linked to the Waterloo thugs.

The circumstances involving the disappearance and reappearance of Bell’s mount fortifies my point about county and state law enforcement’s overall lack of attention to this type of theft. Most who have deer mounts stolen or bucks poached off their property find the county court systems show extreme leniency when deliberating about crimes involving deer. It’s the rare judge who will not allow a felony charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor on a first conviction. A good lawyer can plead even a second offense down to a misdemeanor in most states. This has undoubtedly affected the attitudes of many of our best wardens.

The Best Plan
Sometimes your best defense as a deer hunter is a good offense. Thieves prefer targeting the cabins, trailers and equipment buildings of absentee landowners. Poachers target highly managed properties without locked gates and, usually, in rural regions with negligible populations.

Ask the local warden or sheriff deputy to put your property on an area watch. Leave a radio on and put a light on a timer in any uninhabited buildings. Specialty signs stating that your property is protected by satellite surveillance can ward off burglary and poaching. Always photograph your mounts and insure them for their full value. Secretly mark equipment — especially tree stands and trail cameras — so identification makes prosecution possible.

Cameras and GPS tracking chips are becoming more affordable. Hunters will soon be able to have their taxidermists insert tiny tracking chips in their mounted deer. The insertion hole will be a quarter inch or less in diameter and drilled from the inside of the skull plate where it cannot be noticed. Authorities will be able to track a stolen mount or shed antler anywhere within the range of the specified satellite, which likely will be nationwide. This technology is already in use in Yellowstone Park; it’s similar to cell-phone tracking.

The growing popularity of rural neighborhood watches, satellite-monitoring surveillance cameras and tracking devices being installed in mounts leaves only one thing unsaid:
Poachers and antler thieves: Beware! Your time of prosecution is near.

— Les Davenport is D&DH’s hunting field editor.