Special report: Hunting for poachers on the High Desert

ODFW: Poachers take more deer than legal hunters; few go to jail

Special report: Poachers take a toll

BEND, Ore. - Down a long gravel road east of Madras, the headlights hit the trail of blood, then shone further, where the suspect waited next to the body.

Oregon State Police say it happens all the time in Central Oregon. What's more rare is catching these poachers in the act. But that's exactly what happened on Oct. 11,  just before dusk.

Jefferson County sheriff's deputies and OSP Sgt. Lowell Lea responded to a call regarding a poacher suspected of killing an elk on private land.

"The owner does want to pursue the charges for trespass," Lea told the suspect.  "I really can't let the shooting from the roadway go either, and I'm going to have to take the elk."

The suspect was criminally cited on both charges and will have to appear before a judge.

It's just one of several cases NewsChannel 21 witnessed on a series of ride-alongs to profile OSP's Fish and Wildlife Division.

The program is rare, as Oregon and Alaska are the only states with a police force dedicated strictly to enforcing wildlife crimes.

The division has a $45 million biennial budget and 119 sworn fish and wildlife troopers, a handful of which are based in Central Oregon. Last year, the agency investigated hundreds of poaching cases around the state, the majority deer and elk.

"Around here, for our big game season, probably the most poached species is the mule deer," Lea said.

On a forest road in La Pine, Senior Trooper James Hayes found a doe he suspected was shot illegally and left to rot.

Illegal kills, however, are just a small part of the troopers' work. According to data complied by OSP, the agency deals with thousands of hunter violations each year. 

"Usually on a good night, we'll get 15 people," Hayes said.

Police told KTVZ they don't even come close to catching everyone breaking the rules in the woods.

"It's too big of an area, and too few of us," Lea said. "We don't catch most of the poachers."

To maximize effectiveness, troopers also take to the skies. OSP operates one plane out of Bend with a pilot who looks for people spotlighting wildlife in the forests.

Police also spread out in popular hunting areas around the High Desert. They set up decoys, then hide and wait.

In La Pine, a stuffed deer was shot illegally within minutes after police set up the sting. The hunter took the shot from the middle of the road, which is against the law.

"I've hunted all week, and got all excited, " the suspect told Trooper Hayes. " I totally understand you're just trying to do your job -- and I'm wrong."

In other decoy operations, people shot at the deer after dark and cast spotlights while they were armed. Both are illegal, and illegally shooting at a decoy is a Class A misdemeanor.

According to Lea, after a conviction, a hunter's license can be suspended for three years and a fine of up to $1,500 can be imposed. Often, guns are seized.

During NewsChannel 21's ride-alongs. most suspects were issued citations that can be paid for by mail.

"Most poaching is the crime of opportunity. The opportunity presents itself -- and before the person has really thought through their action, they've committed a crime," Lea said.

But that doesn't mean there aren't serial poachers. OSP keeps a reminder in its Bend  evidence room: a big stack of elk and deer antlers that were seized from one poacher. 

"This person did have to pay $7,500 in restitution to ODFW," Lea said. "He also lost his hunting license for three years, and he had other court fines as well."

But even those convicted of more serious wildlife crimes rarely go to jail.

Data released by the Crook County Court shows the few wildlife cases that were  prosecuted within the last five years ended in plea deals. Most pay fines.

In Deschutes County, 26 poaching cases were prosecuted last year. So far this year, the district attorney's office has just prosecuted three of these cases.

For biologists, the crimes contribute to a troubling trend. Deer numbers are on the decline, in Central Oregon and across the Northwest.

ODFW biologist Corey Heath in Bend estimated there's about 22,000 deer left in Central Oregon. That's only half the number he would like to see. Heath attributes the decline to a variety of reasons, including  loss of habitat, disease, vehicle collisions and poaching.

A 2012 ODFW report found at least 13 percent of mule deer in its study were poached. That's slightly more than the 11 percent that were hunted legally. Almost half of the deer died for unknown reasons, and Heath said it's likely many of those deer were also poached.

"It's frustrating, because we work very hard, " Heath said. "And then you have this fairly significant mortality factor that's a wild card that we have no control over."

Even those who consider hunting more than just a hobby were surprised by the results of the study.

"That shocked me," said Bill Littlfield, Bend president of the Oregon Hunter's Association.

Police and ODFW say there's a variety of reasons why people poach, and agree it has become an industry.

"I think the price this year got up to $12 to $15 a pound for antlers," Lea said. "Commercialism of wildlife is a big issue."

Experts say it's a misconception that hunters poach to feed their families.

"Most of the animals that are taken illegally, they're either left for waste or they're only taking the head," Littlefield said.

Heath also thinks some motives could be more sinister: "Whether they're doing it out of spite, or they just want to shoot something -- they know it's illegal, and they know it has an impact on populations."

It's these people state game police hope to catch.

"Our goal is really to find the serious wildlife violator, the person who is really stealing from the citizens of Oregon" Lea said, although he added that most hunters he contacts are friendly, law-abiding residents.

As for that poacher who killed the elk in Madras, he was scheduled to appear in court Thursday. His elk will be donated by police to feed the needy.

Lea told NewsChannel 21 the meat from many deer and elk seized in poaching cases goes to The Salvation Army in Bend.

Police say they're greatest tool to fight poaching is you. If you know of, or have witnessed a crime against wildlife, you can call the state's Turn-in-Poachers tip line at 1-800-452-7888. You could be eligible for a cash reward.

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