Poachers steal from the state’s residents. They can also upset population balances that the state’s hunting, fishing, and trapping rules aim to maintain. Natural Resources Police officers keep poaching in check.
When a tip about night hunting led Division of Natural Resources law enforcement to do surveillance at a camp in Greenbrier County last November, things took a dangerous turn. “The subjects were observed walking on the porch and shining lights,” says DNR Lieutenant Colonel David Trader, reading from the incident report. “At 9 p.m. all the lights were turned off, and when the officers moved in for a closer look they heard gunfire.”
For two hours, Natural Resources Police (NRP) Sergeant C.J. Lester and Officer Todd Petrunger stayed under cover as shots blazed from the building. NRP officers have full police powers, but Lester and Petrunger weren’t equipped to approach under those conditions. “The guys were trying to figure out how they were going to get into that safely—they couldn’t approach on foot and they were away from their vehicles,” Trader recounts. “They couldn’t close the gap.”
The officers eventually called in a marked unit for assistance and, together, they apprehended two Virginians. The men had spread corn in the adjacent field to bait deer and used night vision equipment and suppressors to shoot them.
Not everyone agrees hunting methods like these should be punished. “Better to hit them with a bullet, safely, than to hit them in your car and possibly injure yourself,” commented one visitor to the NRP Facebook post about the incident, frustrated by deer on the road.
But the fact is, it’s poaching. And those poachers were stealing something precious from you, me, and every other West Virginia citizen: our wildlife.
Why We Regulate Animal Harvest
Left undisturbed, wildlife populations find equilibrium in relation to each other. But introduce humans with their traps, bows, guns, and habitat manipulation, and the system goes awry. If we kill too many of a species, populations of its prey can explode—think wolves and deer. Harvest too few, and disease and starvation follow. Unhunted deer herds in state parks can grow too large, for example, leaving animals to die over harsh winters for lack of food.
It’s a situation that calls for rules.
West Virginia first regulated game in 1869. Killing game between mid February and mid-September brought fines of up to $10 along with up to 10 days’ jail time. Over time, the state has created a suite of regulations tailored to specific animals, specific parts of the state, and specific hunting methods.
The idea is to manage populations for the good of animals and humans alike. “We want a healthy balance of wildlife to the habitat,” says Trader, deputy chief of the Division of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement section. DNR wildlife biologists keep track of populations and, when numbers get out of bounds, the agency tweaks the rules—allowing expanded bear hunting in southwestern counties in 2016, for example.
Good wildlife management helps everyone. Sportsmen and hunters benefit directly. They also pay for it. “When you buy a hunting and fishing license, 40 percent goes to wildlife management, 40 percent to law enforcement, 10 percent to purchase and develop wildlife management areas, and 10 percent to administration,” Trader explains. When sportsmen buy weapons and ammunition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collects a tax that goes back to states for conservation research and surveys.
Of course, non-hunters benefit, too. “People like to go to parks and wildlife management areas and take pictures of beautiful deer, rabbits, and birds,” Trader says.
Poachers aren’t necessarily trying to avoid paying for licenses.
“Sometimes it’s an honest mistake. You might have a guy who killed a deer and didn’t understand that the county was closed,” Trader says. Or sometimes the fish start biting and the angler thinks, “I’m out here today and I’m going to get my trout,” he says. And sometimes it’s just for personal use. “Turkey, geese, and ducks are all good food sources, and people think, I’ll just take this one.”
But even innocent-seeming poaching can upset the balance. “Say you take a hen turkey illegally in the spring. You might have just killed six or eight offspring,” Trader says. A poached female deer could have borne as many as three fawns the following year, and a female bear might have had two cubs. “When you poach 14 or 15 deer out of a hollow, that could impact the local population of that particular species. One really does make a difference.”
Some poaching violates rules meant to promote good sportsmanship. Like the use of night vision technology, spotlighting—taking advantage of nocturnal animals’ tendency to freeze in bright light—is considered unsportsmanlike and results in revocation of a hunting license for two years in West Virginia.
And then there’s large-scale poaching for money. “We had a turtle case several years ago—these guys were coming into the Eastern Panhandle from out of state and gathering up turtles to be sold,” Trader says. It was 2008, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service eventually helped stop a Florida wildlife exporter who had more than 100 turtles in his van. He and his associates pled guilty to the illegal capture and transport of protected reptiles. Penalties are stiff: The leader got a year of home confinement and five years’ probation and was forced to pay $12,000 in restitution. “The same bad guys also were wrapped up in the drug trade,” Trader says, emphasizing the criminal motivation. “A lot of times drugs and smuggling and wildlife and smuggling go hand in hand, and in some instances wildlife brings more money than drugs.”
Markets that motivate poachers are sometimes rooted in cultural practices. “Certain countries fuel poaching because of their rituals and beliefs—they might value ginseng or the gall bladder from the bear,” says DNR’s Lieutenant Terry Ballard, an NRP official in the southwestern part of the state. “On an international scale you might be dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that filters down to these guys collecting the stuff illegally in the state.”
But usually it’s purely for profit—like the turtles, or like a mussel case in the early 1990s. “It was brought to our attention by a fisherman on the Ohio River,” says DNR’s Sergeant Jerry Payne, one of the NRP officers who worked the case. “He stopped by the DNR office in Parkersburg and asked us why all these people from Tennessee and Alabama were taking mussels out of the water.” Cultured pearl producers in Asia pay good money for freshwater mussel shells, which they shatter and polish to tiny spheres to implant in oysters as the nuclei of future pearls. Harvesters had depleted mussel beds farther south and worked their way north. “We were flying airplanes over the Ohio River looking for bubbles, because they were scuba divers. We had a lot of time and effort into it,” Payne says. The divers claimed they were just fishing. State law at the time allowed collection of 50 organisms a day, mussels included, for bait. Eventually, Payne says, the federal government busted them for tax fraud. And West Virginia’s regulations changed in response: Today, mussels can’t be used as bait.
Even species we never see need protection from overharvest, Payne says. “I’ve never seen a polar bear but I like knowing they’re up there. And mussels serve a purpose—they filter the water.”
Wall of Shame
In 1979, with deer populations in the southwestern counties unhealthily low, the state closed Logan, McDowell, Mingo, and Wyoming counties permanently to firearm hunting. Deer may be taken by archery only, and hunters can take only one buck a year. So for more than 30 years, deer have flourished in a heavily forested four-county area with little hunting pressure. Top bucks come out of there regularly, including the current state record for a typical bow-hunted deer: 188â…ž inches on the Pope and Young scale, taken in McDowell County in 2014.
Unfortunately, some firearms hunters can’t resist. So since the 1980s, NRP officers have collected racks from poachers into what’s come to be known as the Wall of Shame. “I would say we have 60 or 70 good-sized antler sets,” says Ballard, who has worked in the area for decades. DNR sets up part of its collection at hunting shows, a bowhunters’ banquet, and Boy Scout and other events around the state each year.
“A lot of the sets are world-class antlers. We have some that are in the range of 200 inches, and it’s hard to kill that class of animal anywhere in the U.S.—you get above 180 inches for a whitetail, people pay big money to go lots of places to kill that,” Ballard says. “The Wall of Shame has been a great education tool over the years.” West Virginians are surprised to learn that bucks that size can be found anywhere in West Virginia. But it also puts people on alert that DNR is watching.
Poaching happens always and everywhere, but NRP officers are there to stop it. They did community policing before the term became popular, Trader says. “They live in the community, they’re part of the community, they have relationships and trust.”
Still, fewer than two NRP officers patrol each of the state’s large counties, on average. So they rely heavily on tips. Ballard urges residents to report suspicious activity. “If the public enjoys seeing these animals and wants more of these animals, give us the information,” he says. “If we can get the public to get involved and give us a call and stand behind us, it makes the resource better—there are more animals for people to see and more available to hunt.”
To report suspected poaching, call the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Law Enforcement section at 304.558.2784 or visit wvdnr.gov and click on “report poachers online.” Reporters may choose to remain anonymous.
This story was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
written by Pam Kasey