clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


The body was that of a large bull moose. Missing were the head and antlers. Poachers had shot the animal, then used a chainsaw to take only what they wanted.

- Missing were the feet, head and who knows what else. Certainly the gallbladder. In Asia, a dried gall from a bear is worth thousands to a poacher.- In late July, one deer lay dead, a second struggled to get away, but couldn't. A poacher's joy-kill bullet had shot off both front legs at the knees.

- A "family" hunting party had 16 deer down, dressed and hanging. A good hunt? No, this was on Wednesday and the hunt didn't open until the following Saturday. Poachers.

- It was a large bull elk. A trophy. The hunter didn't claim it however. The hunting area was open to hunting only spike bulls. This bull was shot because the poacher couldn't resist the chance to shoot a trophy, even though he wouldn't keep it.

Isolated cases? Unfortunately not. All of the above are more common than people think. Worldwide poaching is a serious problem and here in Utah it's no less serious.

Compounding the problem is the fact many people fail to see poaching as a crime . . . A husband shoots his wife's deer . . . so what? Boys simply out having some fun "shooting" animals . . . Boys will be boys. A man claims he desperately needs food for the family . . . "Justifiable," he argues as he loads the hind quarters of an elk into a $20,000 truck and racks his $1,000 rifle, all for a couple of hundred dollars in meat. Oh yes, he cuts off and takes the horns - Why not? - but pays no more attention to the other three-quarters of the animal left to rot.

No one knows for sure how many animals are poached each year. A 1976 study by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish found that 34,000 deer were killed illegally, compared to 25,000 killed legally.

Most states believe that for every animal killed legally, a second is killed illegally.

In Utah, official estimates are more conservative. Craig Miya, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says the number of poached animals is figured to be equal to one third the number legally tagged.

Or, poaching in Utah claims about 23,000 deer, 3,000 elk, 500 antelope, 100 moose, 25 buffalo, along with who knows how many ducks, geese, pheasants, grouse, and, of course, bears, cougars, hawks and eagles each year.

To test public awareness to poaching several years ago the DWR set up several "dummy" poaching scenes around the state, with such things as deer legs, blood, hides and heads left in very conspicuous areas months before the hunting seasons. Not one call was made to report the evidence.People either don't understand or don't care about poaching.

Poachers kill for a variety of reasons. Some do it for money, others for trophies, some simply kill to be killing and some do it for the meat.

Money is the easiest to understand. Animals, dead or alive, can have an large economic value. In South Korea, bear gallbladders are 18 times more valuable than gold. A mere gram of gall sells for $11.53. In 1983, a single gallbladder was sold at public auction in South Korea for $64,000. In Japan, saleable parts of a dead bear are said to be worth more than $10,000.

In many Asian countries, gallbladders are valuable because they are said to cure everything from swollen eyes, hemorrhoids and hepatitis, to tooth decay.

Here in the United States, animals also carry a hefty price tag. A record bighorn sheep, for example, is said to be worth $45,000. A record mule deer is reported to be worth around $1,500 and a trophy elk between $3,000 and $4,000.

Miya says there is also a growing market for live animals.

"I think you'll see a lot of this in the western U.S. in the coming years, now that people are raising animals commercially. They say a young bull elk is worth between $3,000 and $4,000 to a commercial rancher, while a cow with calf is worth between $10,000 and $12,000," he notes.

"Canada has a problem, and so does Colorado, with trapping live animals. We prohibit big game ranching here (in Utah), but that won't stop someone from poaching a live animal from Utah and taking it into Colorado, Montana or New Mexico to sell. We'd like to think it's not going on here in Utah, but it could be going on now."

Public complacency is one reason poaching has become so wide spread. Limited law enforcement is another. The DWR has only 85 officers to blanket the entire state.

Poachers, especially those out for a joy ride, can easily slip between officers . . . and even witnesses. Three years ago people watched as a occupants of a "red Suburban" shot a moose and drove off. The violators were never caught. In another case, about two dozen people watched as a man mistook two moose for elk during the elk hunt, shot and killed one and wounded the second. Realizing his mistake, he shouldered his rifle and walked off down the road. He was never arrested.

Currently, the DWR is investigating a case where two men drove off leaving a campfire burning. Sparks started a fire in Pole Canyon which ultimately destroyed several thousand acres near Cedar Fort. Investigation of the fire ultimately led to the arrest of two Salt Lake County men on arson charges, and later for poaching. DWR officers says they can verify the men killed six deer on a joy ride through four counties, but believe it's likely they killed many more.

In most cases where suspects are caught joy killing, Miya says, drugs or alcohol are involved.

Of course, finding a dead deer and liking it to a poacher is not easy.

"What people don't realize is that on these poaching cases we have to prove the same elements of a crime as a homicide investigation. In those cases we do investigate we're getting about a 90 percent conviction rate, but each case takes a lot of time and work," says Miya.

Probably the hardest violator to catch is the "opportunity" killer. This is the poacher who shoots a deer, then tags it with someone else's license - wife, friend or relative. Or, who sees a deer, stops, figures "Oh well," and shoots.

This becomes evident in the imbalance between male and female license holders checked on opening weekend.

"I often tell a group," adds Miya, "that women are by far the best hunters because on opening day most of the deer we check have been tagged - maybe not shot - but tagged by women."

The attitude here of often "so what." A tag is a tag, no matter who pulls the trigger. Utah's hunting laws, however, are base on management requirements, not numbers. One deer, one hunter. "Group" hunting makes it difficult for biologists to follow sound management policies.

Besides, it's the law. And, while most hunters follow the law, some don't . . . and it's those that don't that hurt the image of hunting and ultimately other hunters.

Poaching, for example, kept valid hunters from harvesting moose on the Manti for several years because more moose were killed illegally than could be replaced by natural means or transplanting. Otherwise, the herd was in negative growth because of poaching.

The different types of poaching, however, draw a mixture of responses. The "commercial" poacher typically draws dislike, while the "opportunity" poacher is casually tolerated.

But poaching is poaching like robbery is robbery. Both are against the law. Both cause damage.

Next: Canned hunts.