Oregon Has a Poaching Problem—and a Force to Reckon With It
By Becca Cudmore
"Oregon State Police, this is Andrew," said the dispatcher covering Oregon's wildlife TIP (Turn In Poachers) line. It was mid-May, and Andrew Tuttle was prepared to answer a call on the latest deer wandering around with an arrow through her skull, or possibly a dynamited trout. (Salmon and steelhead were running upriver at the time.) His next step would be to pen down the who, what, when and where details and then send them through to an on-the-ground trooper in the caller's region. (In this case, the caller was a reporter inquiring about the agency's work. No further action needed here.)
Overall, this relay system has proved effective, even three decades in—though the line has been modernized over the years to accept text-message tips too. It's now easier to catch a wildlife killer than in the 1980s and '90s, and more are being reported. If 2018 is anything like recent years, some 700 Oregonians are expected to dial in a poaching case for state investigation. But while the TIP line serves as the vital first step in alerting local authorities to illegal hunts, Oregon's police continue to search for ways to address this issue.
The Beaver State is one of only two states where a division of fish and wildlife—which includes some 120 state troopers—is part of the official police force. This kind of dedication to addressing illegal wildlife killing has proved necessary: One six-year study in central Oregon found that poaching was responsible for 20 percent of the region's native mule deer deaths—more than were killed legally by hunters with permits in hand. Eighty percent of these illegal kills were female, which represents a real threat to the future of the mule deer population (not to be confused with their white-tailed counterparts). Statewide, the most recent poaching data come from 2015, when illegal killings of nearly 500 deer and more than 200 elk, Oregon's two most monitored species, were called in on the TIP line or discovered by authorities (15 cougars, 19 bears and 2 wolves were also reported that year).
Authorities hope that newly increased poaching fines, which include penalties such as $5,000 for a sturgeon or $50,000 for a mature male mountain goat, will help deter illegal kills. But many poachers have gotten savvy at evading punishment. "Figuring out the who, then trying and convicting that person and actually slapping him with penalties is rare," said Danielle Moser, a wildlife coordinator with Oregon Wild, a Portland-based conservation organization. More commonly, she noted, poachers will get nervous and turn themselves in—knowing that if they come forward and plead ignorance, they're likely to stave off financial or legal consequences. Reputations can also be on the line, as most people in the more rural communities adjacent to the woods know one another by name.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's new biennial budget for 2019 is trying to deal with these issues, with a particular focus on education. Last year, Fish and Wildlife created a coyote versus wolf online identification quiz specifically to address the claim often made by poachers that they thought their illegal wolf take was a legal coyote kill. (For the record, wolves have a stouter snout, and they also have cupped ears.) The next step, Moser said, is to simplify the big-game regulations governing hunting seasons and take numbers (season dates and hunting caps change annually and can vary by region), with the hope that clear communication will reduce the illegal kills.
But many of the state's poaching incidents can't be chalked up to misunderstanding. Moser referenced some recent cases in the state including the "mass murder" of 25 elk that were left wasting on private property in Wallowa County last year. Three bald eagles were also shot and killed, with their talons cut off, in the Willamette Valley in April. In the central part of the state, a radio-collared wolf was caught in a trap near a rancher's property; the poacher resorted to removing this creature's head to ditch the collar and avoid being caught. Because wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, their killings tend to be high-profile cases. And while only four wolves were killed illegally in Oregon in 2017, that's really not insignificant given that only 112 wolves were documented living in the state last year.
As the Oregon State Police has observed, most of these cases are crimes of opportunity. And Moser agreed. "Poaching happens when someone sees an animal and acts impulsively," she said. "They do it without much fear of being caught, and they aren't considering repercussions of killing what's part of our public trust."
Others see a darker motivation in play. After uncovering "a ring" of hunters charged with illegally killing 11 bears, deer, elk and bobcats in Oregon and Washington, one senior Oregon trooper who had been on the case for more than a year told the Seattle Times that he sees local wildlife poaching becoming something of a "demented social club." Some of the poachers in the ring had documented the deaths and recorded their dogs gnawing on the wounded bears, he said.
Whatever the perpetrators' motives, authorities responsible for catching the killers rely primarily on the people who prowl the same backwoods trails—that is, sportsmen and women. Mid-Valley Fish and Wildlife sergeant James Halsey said that authorized hunters and fishers will go out of their way to patrol the land. "They know more than anyone what is and what is not legal to do," he said. One 2016 survey revealed that active hunters and fishers identify poaching as an important issue more often than those who don't participate in these activities. And the police force encourages them to report any suspicious activity. (As hunters and anglers can provide only so much help, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed other strategies to entrap poachers—including a slew of stuffed and animated robot deer decoys that lure hunters.) As Republican Oregon State Representative Mike McLane told Mail Tribune last spring: "Poachers are cheaters ... They're criminals. No one likes them."
To add incentive, the Oregon Hunters Association has upped the rewards in TIP cases, giving a record $24,200 in 2017 to people who called in violations of the state's fish and wildlife laws—more than double the total rewards given out the previous year. Individual Hunters Association chapters and other conservation groups can pledge additional funds in selected cases, and offers have reached higher than $17,000, as with one bighorn sheep case in northeast Oregon and in an elk killing rampage in the southern part of the state. When a reward of $17,500 was offered for the latter, Oregon Live reported that "the elk killing stopped."
In a testament to the genuine concern Oregonians have for their wildlife, often TIP callers won't accept these rewards, says Halsey. No wonder, then, that state police have kept their hotline manned for 32 years.
You can file an Oregon poaching case online with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at www.dfw.state.or.us or by calling 866-947-6339. Reach the Turn In Poachers Report Wildlife Violations line at 800-452-7888 or email [email protected].