By Tom Walton
When I was a kid, I spent time hiking in the woods by my house. I’d look for snakes and other critters, enjoying watching them and learning about them. Today, my wife gives me a hard time because I almost crash my truck every time I see a deer eating in a field. After I started hunting, my love for wild critters and their habitats grew exponentially.
While my goal when hunting is to kill an animal, I strive to do so in the most ethical way possible: following the fair chase guidelines set by our laws and the hunting community. When I see someone step outside of fair chase rules and take an animal unlawfully, it pains me deeply.
I am referring to poachers. Poachers commit an ultimate sin against nature. They abuse our natural resources and give all hunters a bad name. Even with fish and wildlife agencies doing everything they can, poachers still have the upper hand. Enough is enough. We ethical hunters and lovers of all things wild owe it to the animals we claim responsibility over to do more.
Have you ever witnessed taking an animal, terrestrial or aquatic, unlawfully? How did it make you feel? What did you do when you saw it? Call it in? Confront the poacher(s)? Or did you turn a blind eye because it isn’t any of your business? If you are a person who spends time enjoying wildlife, it is your business. Whether you hunt, photograph, or simply enjoy watching wildlife, you need to concern yourself with their wellbeing. I do not advocate confronting armed poachers because it can be very dangerous, but you shouldn’t act like you didn’t see anything. If you feel uncomfortable approaching a poacher, make a call to your state’s fish and game agency. If you stay silent, you are just as guilty as the poachers.
I do not advocate confronting every poacher you see. Confrontation is dangerous for many obvious reasons. It is far safer to get as much information as you can and call the proper authorities. Critical information includes license plates, vehicle descriptions, descriptions of the offenders, and location of the incident. However, my hunting partner is also my patrol partner. We are both police officers and we have training most civilians do not. That being said, I am not trying to be a game warden, either. I’d prefer to have zero poacher encounters, but when I see blatant poaching occur right in front of me, I feel it is my duty as a steward of the land to do something. In fact, this is one of the very few times I would get involved in an incident while off-duty. I often tell new officers to avoid off-duty confrontation and simply be good witnesses.
My most recent elk hunt was plagued with poachers. It was a late season cow elk muzzleloader hunt; the elk were herded up in the low country, mostly on private lands. In my neck of the woods, this creates a frenzy among local hunters who have yet to punch an elk tag. Most landowners in the area will gladly give you permission to hunt their lands if you ask. In fact, it’s dang near public land if you are respectful to the landowners and wildlife. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of the generosity and assume they can hunt anywhere and anything they like. This is where it gets squirrelly.
This is not typically a hunt I would characterize as difficult, but with the poaching, it changed the game for those of us trying to do it right. On one occasion, I was shot at by a group of poachers. They were perched on the bed of a pickup, guns pointed at a group of mule deer does and fawns feeding between the poachers and me. I heard rounds snap overhead, a sound I recalled from my time in the Marine Corps. I started waving and screaming, but additional rounds were fired. I hit the deck and hoped for the best. So much for my blaze orange. After firing their volley, the poachers sped off without checking on any of the deer they’d just shot at. I informed law enforcement and some locals of the incident. I was told this was all too common.
During my late season hunt, my hunting partner and I saw elk every day and were excited about our chances. One morning, we arrived hours before sunrise. We threw our packs on and started hiking into position. We were hunting a private field cut in half by a creek and again by a private road. The spot was popular as the landowner welcomes most hunters. As a brand-new hunter, I figured this area provided my best opportunity for late season success.
Before long, we located a large herd of elk. We moved through the darkness, our path illuminated by the bright yellow moon. The elk fed towards us as we set up in an ambush point, waiting for legal shooting light to break across the horizon. While we axiously waited in the single digit temperatures, concealing ourselves in the frosty grass, we saw headlights turn onto a private road opposite the herd from us. The artificial light from the other hunter’s truck skimmed across the tan backs of the elk, who did not waste time making a run for the nearest tree line. As the elk bolted, the truck sped up and chased the herd. The truck came to a stop. We heard a shot in the dark. The elk disappeared into the snowy pines and the truck immediately left the scene.
Discouraged, my buddy and I walked back to the truck to game plan for the evening hunt. We were appalled by the disgusting behavior displayed by the unidentified poacher and agreed to call it in. We started driving to another location to check for sign when we came across the truck. The driver, an out-of-state old timer, was just coming back from looking for blood. He was quick, and disturbingly proud, to tell us about his shot in the dark. He said he saw the elk running and got excited. Out of desperation, he fired a shot from his muzzleloader at the shadowy herd of elk who were running and over 400 yards away. He said he was sure he didn’t hit anything. He went back to look for blood in the day light but did not see any.
My buddy and I were infuriated. Not only did he ruin our hunt that morning, but he showed blatant disrespect for the elk. We proceeded to chew his ass up and down. He began to realize we didn’t think his story was as cool as he did.
He looked down and softly said, “Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that.”
However, his obvious lack of remorse only made it worse. I informed him I’d be calling the game warden. The old man left in a hurry, hopefully, to never return.
The next day was even worse. Like the day before, we arrived early and started hiking in the dark. We found the herd again and got into position. As we watched the herd of 200 plus elk casually feed, we saw the dreaded glow of headlights turning down yet another private road. It was as if we hit a repeat button of yesterday. The herd spooked. The truck’s lights were still shining across the dim and frozen field. We heard a shot echo in the morning darkness as the herd ran by the poacher’s truck. The herd made it into the trees. As orange sunlight began to crest the tops of the black pine trees standing tall on the surrounding mountains like stoic sentries, we could see the poachers had an elk on the ground.
Furious, we approached the poachers. There were two men working on the dead elk. As my buddy approached the elk, one of the poachers tried to stand in front of the elk’s head, which was obviously propped up by an antler stuck in the dirt. They killed a spike bull. This was a cow only hunt. Knowing he’d been caught, the shooter began to desperately plea his case.
“If you’d only hiked in and waited for shooting light, we would both probably have full freezers. But no, you wanted to come out here, drive your truck up to the herd, and shoot an elk in the dark. Now you’ve screwed up both our chances,” I told him. Not only had the poacher not seen the antlers in the dark, but he shot from the road, towards another road and a house. The two poachers began dragging the elk into their truck bed. I did not want these violators to evade justice.
The poachers were cooperative with us. We identified ourselves as police officers and asked them to wait for a warden to arrive. They agreed. A game warden responded quickly and took the spike bull. He gave them warnings due to this being their first recorded offense and their cooperation. Before leaving the warden to deal with the poachers, I took the time to examine the dead elk. He was beautiful.
While I would have gladly killed this elk during an antlered elk hunt, I was sad for the loss of the animal under these circumstances. This wasn’t right, and it drove home the idea of fair chase to me. I don’t see it as “just a spike.” This incident was an attack on all wildlife. Taking the time to see these poachers brought to justice canceled that day’s hunt, but my partner and I both agreed it was worth it. We did not harvest an elk this year, but at least we might have contributed to there being elk to harvest in future years.
I’m not an expert in wildlife management, and I do not have any numbers on hand. However, I will say this: I hear a lot of grumbling about predators decimating our big game herds in the Pacific Northwest and other areas. People often give wolves a hard time. I am guilty of this myself, too. While I agree wolves and other predators need to be managed by hunters, I can’t help but think poachers are just as big of a problem, if not bigger.
Many fish and game agencies are underfunded and understaffed. Our state agencies are simply not capable of being everywhere at all times. It is up to us to help watch out for wildlife. We need to continue to bring poaching into the conversation. We need to show poachers they have no where to hide. We need to mentor new hunters in the importance of fair chase and ethical hunting practices. Hunting is the ultimate integrity test because no one is standing over your shoulder. It is up to you to do the right thing when no one is watching. We owe it to the wildlife we love and cherish.
A special thanks to game wardens and wildlife professionals around the country for protecting our resources. I have your six!