Whether thrill-seekers, egomaniacs or opportunists, they all steal from you and me.
By David Hart
It’s probably not a good idea to brag about your illegal exploits on the Internet, but that’s exactly what Darin Lee Waldo, a convicted felon, did last year when he posted photos of deer he killed out of season on his Facebook page. It was a move that led Florida game wardens right to Waldo’s doorstep. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity to gather more evidence, however, law enforcement agents earned Waldo’s trust through chats over the Internet before making their bust. Waldo even invited two undercover officers to accompany him on two illegal hunts before he was charged with seven felonies and six misdemeanors.
Not all poachers are that dumb. Some are pretty sharp and get away with wildlife crimes for years before ultimately getting caught or simply giving up. And just as their intelligence varies, so do their reasons for breaking game laws.
The Thrill of the Kill
For some, shooting deer out a truck window in the beam of a spotlight is nothing more than a normal activity on a Saturday night. It’s just something to do, an alternative to a movie or a night at home. They grab a 12-pack, a friend or two and hit the back roads with a rifle barrel and a spotlight poking out the passenger window.
A Virginia game warden who asked not to be identified says those poachers are often young — teenagers or men in their early to mid-20s — who view poaching as a rite of passage. They don’t necessarily want big antlers. Nor are they looking for meat. Instead, it’s about the thrill of breaking the law and putting one over on the local game warden.
“Those are the ones who shoot any deer they see, whether it’s a little buck, a big buck or even a doe,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll cut the head off, but more often than not they just leave it on the ground without even bothering to do anything with it,” he said. “I’d guess about half the people I catch have alcohol or drugs in their possession.”
The historic version of a typical poacher was a guy down on his luck who is just trying to put some meat on the family table. While there still might be some of that taking place, it’s far less common than other breeds of poachers, like the serial criminals who poach because it’s what they’ve always done.
They have been poaching for so long they often have a normal route that includes prime spots, says the Virginia game warden. Serial poachers are as passionate about poaching as others are about legal and ethical hobbies. Unfortunately, many are smart enough to change their routine, making it difficult to catch them. They tend to be older, and they do most of their poaching not far from their homes.
“It’s their comfort zone,” the Virginia game warden said. “They know all the back roads and the land and all the escape routes.”
Retired Iowa game warden Randy McPherren says the most dedicated poachers are often involved in other illegal activities, including everything from drug distribution to violent crime. Many, like Florida poacher Darin Lee Waldo, have other felony convictions.
Not all are poachers are bad to the bone, though. Some are simply opportunists who spot a buck in a field that’s far enough away from the nearest house that there is little risk of getting caught. They just can’t resist the sight of a deer close to the road, so they shoot it, drag it out of the field and load it up, all in a matter of minutes. Many will even tag the deer so they at least appear legal.
Occasional poachers are the most difficult to catch. Game wardens have to rely on a solid tip from a witness, or they simply have to be in the neighborhood when the crime is taking place.
The territory of a state game warden often covers an entire county, sometimes spanning hundreds of square miles. And these days, their job can include duties that aren’t even remotely related to hunting or fishing. This makes the odds of a warden being in the vicinity of a late-night crime pretty slim.
All In The Family
“We teach ethics in our hunter education classes, but it’s pretty tough to change the attitudes of some kids who have fathers who are hardcore poachers,” says the Virginia game warden. “If a 3-year-old is riding around with his father spotlighting deer, which I’ve actually seen before, what do you think that kid is going to do when he grows up? A parent is going to have much more influence on his children than I can in an 8-hour hunter education class.”
An Oregon father and son were arrested in February for allegedly poaching at least six trophy-class black-tailed deer. Another father-son duo from Oregon were arrested for crimes related to the illegal taking of elk, and a third Oregon father and son pleaded guilty to poaching upward of 295 deer over five years.
Family poaching rings aren’t endemic to Oregon, of course. Father-son poaching teams can be found throughout the country, including Wisconsin where a 45-year-old man and his 25-year-old son were arrested after they were found with a 26-point buck. The deer was the third-largest non-typical taken in the state and was reportedly taken with a rifle during archery season.
The Allure of Antlers
The 26-point poachers were likely part of a problem that has always been around but has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, paralleling the interest in trophy bucks.
Although McPherren, who was a game warden for 35 years, says the rate of trophy poaching has declined somewhat in Iowa, it remained a large part of his work until he retired two years ago. In fact, antlers, big antlers, are one of the primary motivations for many poachers.
A game warden logbook entry posted on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s website offers a glimpse into the power of big antlers. It reads, “Worked a booth at the Kansas Expocentre for the Monster Buck Classic — or, as I like to call it, the Deer Poacher’s Extravaganza.’” Based on a recent case, he might be right.
Kansas resident David Kent brought a buck to the Monster Buck Classic earlier this year. He intended to enter it into the show’s big buck contest. However, the buck, recognizable for its distinctive almost 200-inch rack, was captured on a trail camera far from where Kent claimed to have killed it. The photo was brought to the attention of Kansas game wardens by an astute hunter. Kent faces multiple charges, and the buck was confiscated by the Kansas DWPT.
The Virginia game warden says various big buck contests only fuel the egos of poachers who kill for antlers. He’s worked many outdoor shows that included those contests, which rarely offer cash prizes. They do give recognition to the winning buck and the hunter who killed it. That’s often enough to feed a poacher’s ego.
McPherren agrees. People “will do just about anything to kill a big buck,” he said. “It drives good people to do bad things. There is definitely an ego-driven aspect of poaching. A lot of these guys want to look like they did something special, so they’ll try to pass off a giant buck that was taken illegally as a legal kill.”
And it’s not just locals who are stoked by the allure of big antlers. McPherren says the big buck boom that swept across Iowa starting in the 1980s resulted in a huge increase in poaching by nonresidents who apparently don’t like the idea of going home empty handed. The out-of-state criminals he encountered did everything from trespassing and spotlighting to hunting without a license or shooting a buck when they only possessed a doe tag.
“I even caught some guys sitting with a bow over a deer trail during the peak of the rut who claimed to be hunting coyotes,” McPherren adds.
Those poachers knew exactly what they were doing, but some simply don’t see their actions as wrong and offer their own twisted logic when they are caught. For example, baiting is illegal in Virginia, but it’s a common problem that keeps game wardens busy.
“I’ve had some poachers tell me that baiting is no different than a food plot, so by their thinking, it’s okay to bait,” says the Virginia game warden. “They will also put up a treestand on a property line when the stand happens to overlook a field, as if shooting a deer a few yards over the property line is perfectly fine. It’s not the same as spotlighting, but it’s poaching just the same.”
Regardless of a poacher’s motives, the end result is always the same. Poachers steal from legal, ethical hunters, and they create an image many non-hunters have of all hunters.
They make all of us look bad.