By Chuck Smick
When I pulled into the parking area at the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge, my stomach roiled and my heart sank. There lay three deer left to waste. One had been skinned and the head removed, along with a few choice pieces of meat. The other two lacked their heads, but all the meat was left untouched. Sadly, I found two more deer in the same condition at other locations.
To say that I don’t understand why people would waste those deer is an understatement; it’s really beyond my ability to grasp. At the least, the meat could have been used to provide meals for some of the area’s less fortunate families.
I had been hunting on the refuge for about a week when I discovered this disgrace to the hunting community. I talked to other hunters and the federal wildlife law enforcement officers who patrol the refuge. The hunters said they had found carcasses at several refuge parking areas. The officers said they had observed the same situation and that they had increased patrols in the area. They also asked me to be on the lookout for any suspicious vehicles or activity.
Who is performing these heinous acts, and why?
The quick answer would be that poachers (notice I didn’t use the word “hunters”) are shooting bucks, taking the heads and continuing to hunt for a larger trophy since Kentucky has a one-buck limit. The other possibility is that poachers are just shooting deer for the sake of shooting them.
I was surprised when federal wildlife law enforcement officer Jason Bayer told me that poaching was moderate in the refuge and in the area. He said the problem was worse in areas with a higher percentage of trophy bucks.
I asked Jason if it was possible to profile these poachers. He said there are typically two types: those who hunt for trophies and those who kill for thrills. Maj. David Casey and his team of officers of the Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources agreed. Trophy poachers, he said, shoot deer with large racks without regard for how they take them. Thrill poachers shoot deer without much regard for antlers or age, and both types most often leave the deer to rot.
The poacher who shoots an animal illegally, takes it home, cleans and processes it is rare. In fact, none of the officers I talked to had ever arrested anyone for shooting deer strictly for the meat.
Thrill poachers are usually young males between 16 and 22 years old and don’t fit into a particular socioeconomic category. Trophy poachers tend to be middle-class individuals who need to prove their skill to themselves or their buddies. Out-of-state hunters who don’t want to go home empty-handed are another common trophy-poaching sub-group.
While poaching is bad enough, it’s difficult to understand how these individuals can then waste such a precious resource, especially when there are so many needy people who would be thrilled to have the meat. But the simple truth is that removing the meat from the woods adds to the time the criminal is at the scene of the crime and also means more evidence in his possession (especially for thrill-poachers). Besides, these folks’ brains don’t think the same way most of ours do, and most don’t even consider themselves to be poachers.
Poaching comes in many forms, from trespassing to hunting without permission to shooting animals out of season or after hours. But no matter how or when it’s done, it’s still poaching.
While poachers make up a tiny percentage of hunters, they create big problems for the rest of us. Poachers remove large (and small) bucks from the woods, thus stealing the opportunity for an honest hunter to claim the trophy. But more important, they give all hunters a bad reputation in the eyes of non-hunters and landowners. Imagine trying to explain to a hiker or bird watcher who has come upon a poached deer carcass that such acts are the exception and not the rule —good luck with that one. And who can blame a landowner for posting his property after he finds several headless bucks in his back 40?
All the officers I talked to stressed that they can’t stop poaching without the help of law-abiding sportsmen. Please report poaching and suspicious activity to wildlife law enforcement officers. Bayer said a big problem is most sportsmen’s attitude that reporting a poacher is “snitching” on a fellow hunter. It’s important to remember that poachers are stealing directly from you. You wouldn’t fail to report a neighbor who broke into your home and stole your TV, so you shouldn’t have any qualms about giving a poacher his just dues.
If you observe a wildlife crime, take note of any vehicles in the area. Write down tag numbers and any other information that could help law enforcement identify the poacher. If you have a camera in your pack, snap a few photos.
Also, never confront a poacher yourself. Poaching is a high-adrenaline crime that involves weapons, so enforcement is best left to the professionals. Even if you are the landowner, contact your local wildlife officer to avoid a potentially dangerous confrontation.
No matter how you look at it, poaching is a crime. And because of the remote locations of most incidents, it’s up to us to take action when we witness poaching. Resist the temptation to look the other way, and you’ll make the woods a better place for you and your kids.
This article was published in the September, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.