We cover dozens of poaching stories every year here at MeatEater, but one thread connects them all: poachers never get what they deserve. At least, that’s what our readers tell us.
To take just one example, when a family of poachers in Idaho got caught mowing down elk from a moving truck, dozens of you weighed in to express your frustration with the penalty. A 10-year hunting license suspension, thousands of dollars in fines, and 100 hours of community service weren’t sufficient to pay for that egregious wildlife crime, you said.
“Time and time again you see this. The fine that the poachers pay is hardly even punishment. They’ll do it again,” one commenter wrote. (One hundred and seven other readers liked this comment.) Another reader called the punishment a “slap on the wrist,” while others called for jail time, a lifetime ban on owning firearms, and a $100,000 fine.
As if to confirm that the justice system doesn’t give two shakes about poaching, Idaho Fish and Game released a correction a week after their original press release. Instead of 10 felonies and a $7,300 fine, these poachers were actually fined only $6,000 and had all their felonies expunged.
“We Aren’t There Yet”
Game wardens and wildlife professionals who spoke with MeatEater all told stories of cases that took months and years to investigate, only to end with poachers escaping with minimal fines and penalties.
Sam Lawry, a retired officer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, recalled one “chronic poacher” who used treble hooks baited with meat scraps on metal snares to catch mountain lions and eagles. The man was eventually busted after he took a game and fish officer on an illegal guided bear hunt.
“The guy got some fines and lost his license, but I would have loved to see him go to the tank,” Lawry said, referring to prison.
In another case, Lawry’s wife caught two men poaching an elk in the Lawry’s backyard. The pair shot a spike elk on a bull elk tag, but they were both lawyers, Lawry says, and the county attorney dismissed the case.
“As for penalties being adequate, I would say we aren’t there yet,” Yvonne Shaw told MeatEater. Shaw is the coordinator for Protect Oregon’s Wildlife Turn In Poachers campaign, an anti-poaching project of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
Shaw cited a recent case in Oregon where two poachers killed five elk and left them to rot. The husband and wife were fined $2,500 and had their hunting licenses suspended for three years, and the husband was forced to write an apology letter in the local paper and spend six days in jail.
“Many people reached out to me to express their displeasure in the penalties,” Shaw said. The Oregonians she heard from would like to see poachers forfeit their weapons, vehicles, licenses, and other personal belongings, along with larger fines and jail time.
Why the Light Punishments?
Wildlife professionals cite a number of reasons for this disparity between crime and punishment. At the heart is a disconnect between prosecutors and judges, and hunters and anglers.
“Most county attorneys aren’t familiar with fish and wildlife cases,” Lawry said. “They’re dealing with rapes and murders and burglaries. The lower end of the totem pole in that hierarchy of prosecutors get game and fish cases, and they’re not too excited.”
“Their colleague is prosecuting someone for rape, but they’re prosecuting someone for shooting an elk out of season,” Lawry continued. “The enthusiasm to go after stiff penalties and really convince the judge to hand down the maximum sentence is rarely there.”
Judges are another key to handing down tougher sentences. Lawry knew one judge who was a hunter and would always dole out stiff penalties for wildlife crimes. But that judge was an anomaly, and in Lawry’s 20 years on the force, he never saw a poacher sent to prison.
Wayne Saunders also never sent anyone to prison on poaching charges. Saunders is a retired Lieutenant Conservation Officer from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, and he speaks with wardens around the country on his podcast, “Warden’s Watch.”
“I had one judge who I would plead everything down with because I knew I was going to have a ‘not guilty’ [in the case of a trial]. It was horrible,” he told MeatEater. During one illegal baiting case, the judge told Saunders that he had proved the guilt of the defendant, but he said Saunders “could have done a little more.” The judge found the accused poacher not guilty.
Some judges hand down lenient sentences on all crimes and so are especially disposed to show mercy to wildlife criminals. Others have different reasons for their sentences.
“In Pennsylvania, 10 years ago, you couldn’t bring a deer case to the courts down there because the judge would have hit a deer on the way to court,” Saunders joked. “There were so many deer and so many problems, so they were like, ‘Really? He killed a deer at night? Thank God.’”
Shaw mentioned a number of additional reasons poachers rarely receive tough sentences. If there is a shortage of defense attorneys, a case will get dismissed due to lack of a public defender. In addition, unlike in most cases involving a human, the “victim” (i.e., the animal) has no one advocating for them other than the state. Poachers steal wildlife from the general public, but the “general public” often doesn’t know or care. Finally, poaching cases are difficult to prosecute because they often span large geographical areas and cross jurisdictional lines.
Does License Suspension Work?
Most serious poaching violations result in a license suspension, but many hunters (if MeatEater readers are any indication) doubt whether taking away a poacher’s license is enough to dissuade future infractions.
Lawry separates poachers into two categories: lifetime poachers and opportunistic poachers. “The lifetime poacher you’re not going to change,” he said. “[A license suspension] didn’t affect them at all. They’d just be more cautious.”
But opportunistic poachers, those who kill over their limit of ducks or kill a buck on a doe tag, will often abandon their life of crime and honor the license revocation.
“You take his license away, and he’s probably not going to go do that again,” Lawry said.
Saunders also argued that taking away a poacher’s license eliminates a big incentive for poaching in the first place.
“Part of poaching is bragging. If they can’t brag, you took something away from them. If everybody knows they lost their license, they really lost that pleasure,” he said.
Saunders often pursued a license revocation–even if he had to accept lower fines–because the license suspension is “the ultimate equalizer.” A wealthy person might pay a fine without breaking a sweat, but “no matter if you’re rich or poor, you still love those hunting privileges the same.”
Law-abiding hunters are unlikely to be satisfied with most penalties. Little short of serious jail time seems adequate to make up for the opportunities for trophies and meat that poachers steal from the rest of us. But there are things that can be done by game wardens, legislatures, and hunters.
Both Saunders and Lawry recommended that game wardens develop relationships with county attorneys and judges to help them understand the seriousness of wildlife crime. Lawry would take attorneys on patrol with him when he was on the force, and Saunders would make sure to “spoon-feed” the judges with context and detailed information about every case.
Saunders even recommended that a legislature’s sportsmen’s caucus host educational events for prosecutors and judges. These events can build relationships between lawmakers and law enforcement and reinforce the necessity of holding poachers accountable.
The benefits of having judges who are well-versed in wildlife crime is hard to overstate. In one case Saunders was involved with in Washington State, the judge asked a pair of waterfowl poachers if they shot “all greenheads or did you shoot hens too?”
“Just instantly I know, this is a good wildlife judge,” Saunder said.
“‘Let me tell you boys, this is a part-time job. I’m a professional duck hunter,’” the judge said, according to Saunders. “And then he got on his soap box, and he hammered them.”
Legislatures can also step in to raise poaching fines and penalties, such as imposing additional restitution fees when poachers take “trophy” animals. In Oregon, for example, the legislature passed a bill in 2018 that created stiffer penalties and allowed prosecutors to elevate poaching crimes from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The Oregon Department of Justice also hired a special prosecutor whose sole job is to go after wildlife criminals. As of this writing, Oregon is the only state to appoint such a prosecutor, and it paid off in a recent poaching case that saw the offender serve jail time and get hit with a $75,000 fine.
“Fulfilling this role increases our chances of holding poachers accountable,” Shaw said.
Our Job as Hunters
While poaching and other wildlife crimes are less culturally acceptable now than in decades past, there are still some communities where poachers are met with a wink and a nod. Saunders says this is where hunters must police their own.
“We should be throwing the book at them whenever we can because they’re taking opportunity from our children, opportunity from us,” he said. “Every outdoorsman that has a conscience or ethics should take this personally.”
Game wardens we’ve spoken with for other poaching stories emphasize how important it is for legal hunters to speak up when they see someone breaking the rules. With such wide areas to cover, it’s difficult for wardens to catch violators. Most states have an Operation Game Thief tip line or similar program that hunters can use to anonymously report potential violations.
Hunters can also educate the general public–friends, family, and neighbors–about why wildlife crimes are just as serious as other types of misbehavior. Lawry offered one metaphor that might help in these conversations.
“If a guy walked into a museum and said, ‘I’m going to steal this statue,’ and it’s a public treasure, what would we do with that guy? We’d throw him in the tank,” he said. “It should be no different when someone is taking and profiting on resources that belong to all of us. Especially if it’s a repeat offender where fines aren’t working. If you sit in the tank with an orange suit on for a week, you might learn a lesson.”
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