Rewards, tougher prosecutions employed to slow illegal slaughter of wildlife
Government officials, conservation groups work to combat Oregon’s poaching problem.
A wild pronghorn lies dead along a southeastern Oregon highway in 2020, killed by a poacher. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
In what was described as a “thrill kill,” poachers in January killed two pronghorn antelope and shot two others, left for dead outside the remote community of Crane, in Oregon’s Outback.
In December, a poacher shot and killed a mule deer from a private driveway near homes outside Springfield, beheading the animal and fleeing when a passerby questioned him.
And a month before that, authorities found deer carcasses on public property just outside of Wilsonville, the carnage of another illegal hunt.
At a seemingly steady pace, the Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announce poaching cases, seeking public help to find the poachers or build cases against suspects they already have.
And more instances have little to do with harvesting meat.
Steve Hagan, Oregon Hunters Association vice president, said he’s noticed a growing number of “thrill kills,” in recent years. The term refers to when a poacher shoots an animal for fun, he said.
“The number of cases that have been solved where that’s what happened has trended upwards over the past five years, significantly all over the state” he said.
Poaching cases, no matter the reason, are common in Oregon, where the state’s natural landscapes and rich fauna clash with a growing population and a segment of people unwilling to obey the law. As poaching adds unnecessary stress to wildlife populations already strained by climate change and habitat destruction, government agencies and private organizations work to combat the crime under often difficult enforcement conditions.
Statistics from the Fish and Wildlife Division of the state police show that poaching numbers have trended relatively flat since 2016. Excluding fish and shellfish, which make up the bulk of illegally harvested animals that police detect and can skew the data, an average of 1,358 animals were poached annually between 2016 and 2021, with a low point of 600 in 2021 and a peak of 1,900 in 2018. In terms of big game, there were 324 poached in 2019 and 447 in 2020.
Such numbers are rough estimates at best, said Yvonne Shaw, the Stop Poaching Campaign coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Department. They include only the poached animals discovered by police and reveal half the story, she said.
Poaching often happens in remote areas far from witnesses, meaning it’s likely many poaching incidents go undetected. Often, poachers are caught only because someone witnessed the crime or overheard the poacher discussing it, Shaw said.
In April 2020, authorities said, Michael S. Phillips, 48, drove his pickup truck at 60 mph through a herd of antelope on a remote road in southeastern Oregon, killing six.
He later told authorities that “he hates pronghorn.”
Police said they later found a set of horns from one of the dead animals at Phillips’ Christmas Valley home. Phillips died last September.
Sometimes, poachers are tripped up by police who come upon their crimes or encounter evidence that suggests poaching.
When an Oregon State Police trooper stopped speeders on U.S. 97 near LaPine, he questioned one man about blood on his jacket. Justin Borchert, 19, of Madras said it was from hunting a deer.
In fact, an investigation in 2020 showed he had illegally killed three Canada Geese, two mule deer, and an antelope. He later was convicted of a wildlife crime, put on probation and ordered to pay $7,500 restitution.
A recent report by conservation and hunting group Boone and Crockett Club and the Wildlife Management Institute estimated that no more than 3% of wildlife crimes are detected.
And a 2015 study by the Fish and Wildlife Department concluded that as many mule deer are poached in Central Oregon as are legally killed.
Oregon has gotten tougher with poachers in recent years, increasing penalties and in some cases turning poaching into a felony.
Key legislation passed in the 2019 Legislature following impassioned testimony from those representing hunters and wildlife.
“This is a huge problem and steps need to be taken now to deter it,” said the Oregon Hunters Association in written testimony that year on House Bill 3087.
Defenders of Wildlife, representing 33,000 members in Oregon, said in its testimony that it was committed to “putting a stop to illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching in Oregon…Poaching has serious consequences for individual animals, populations of species, and on the ecosystem.”
And the state Fish and Wildlife Department got behind legislation that would increase awareness of poaching, making it easier to turn in poachers and toughen criminal sanctions.
“Reducing poaching benefits all Oregonians, not just hunters and anglers,” the agency said in written testimony in 2019.
The state has since stepped up efforts to get citizens to help.
Authorities rely on the Turn-In-Poachers (TIP) system. The program, a partnership between state police, Fish and Wildlife and the state Justice Department that is funded by state dollars, allows for anonymous tips. Anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest or citation can receive a reward, depending on the animal. The top reward is $1,000 for poaching cases involving Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and moose.
Fish and Wildlife authorities said 61 TIP checks were paid out in 2020, amounting to $20,599. Tipsters also can opt to be rewarded in hunter’s preference points to increase their chances of drawing a state hunting tag. According to Shaw, rewarded preference points do not have to be for the same species as the reported poaching.
Prosecution of poachers is generally handled by county prosecutors.
Melissa LeRitz, a deputy district attorney in the Jackson County District Attorney’s office in Grants Pass, prosecutes wildlife cases. In 2020, the state police named her Wildlife Prosecutor of the Year.
She said that for most of the poaching cases that she handles, “buck fever” is the given motive – an opportunistic kill where the poacher claims they couldn’t help themselves. Often, a poacher will shoot an animal that they don’t have the proper tags for during an otherwise legal hunt, sometimes harvesting the meat, sometimes not.
LeRitz recounted a case out of Ashland, where deer are a common sight in the city of 20,000.
In 2019, 38-year-old Dustin S. McGrorty of Riddle shot a beloved black-tailed deer buck from his pickup truck. The deer, so well-known among Ashland residents that it had been named, was sleeping next to a house in a bed it had made for itself.
A neighbor caught McGrorty loading the carcass into his pickup and called police. State troopers soon found him.
“He pretty quickly came out and said, ‘I shouldn’t have done it, but it was just this big buck, I got buck fever and I had to do it,’” LeRitz said.
McGrorty, a Hall of Fame football player while at Southern Oregon University, was charged with misdemeanor firearm use, illegally possessing a deer, hunting in a prohibited area and trespassing. McGrorty was fined $8,891, ordered to surrender his rifle and hunting gear, and received a five-year hunting suspension, two years of bench probation and 80 hours of community service. By earlier this month, McGrorty had paid $5,024.
“Deer will frequently just walk around the city because they’re not hunted there,” LeRitz said. “They are really treated like members of the community. This is a place where people care about the wildlife and don’t want them shot within city limits.”
Money sometimes can be a motive for poaching.
Lt. Stephanie Bigman, state police spokeswoman, said that organized poaching rings are rarely apprehended, but when they are, common items they’re after include bear gall bladders – which have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve liver health and can retail for more than $500.
Shaw, the poaching campaign coordinator, said there’s also a strong black market trade in sturgeon caviar, which can sell for $3,200 a pound. Sturgeons can carry 100 pounds of eggs, so a large fish can be worth over $300,000. A common sturgeon poaching technique involves tying a live sturgeon to a tree on the riverbank, keeping it fresh and avoiding the risk of capture while poachers search for a buyer.
The tight limit on hunting permits for rare animals can prompt hunters to go criminal. For animals such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats, the state only gives out a few dozen tags each year, and often thousands apply. The Fish and Wildlife Department refers to these hunts as “once-in-a-lifetime,” meaning hunters can only draw a tag once.
But according to Hagan, bighorn sheep tags sell at auction for up to $160,000, meaning that for some, poaching a bighorn and paying the fine might end up being cheaper than buying a legal tag.
“To the market rate for a lawful hunter, that’s not even one-third,” he said.
Hunters often get frustrated with such regulations, Hagan said, and poach because they feel entitled to use a tag that wasn’t used the prior year. If they don’t encounter the animal they paid for one year, they’ll hunt the same animal the following year without purchasing another tag.
“They feel like they’re owed one,” he said.
The impact of illegally hunting varies from species to species.
“The population impacts are different depending on the magnitude and the biology of the animal,” said Kevin Blakely, a Fish and Wildlife Department administrator.
Sturgeons reach sexual maturity at 20, so killing an individual fish – especially if it’s immature – will have a greater effect on the population than poaching an individual mollusk or shellfish, which regenerate quickly. Poaching larger, older sturgeon also disproportionately affects breeding capacity, as female sturgeon who’ve matured typically carry eggs.
Between 2012 and 2018, 316 sturgeons were poached in Oregon, according to the state police.
“We’re to the point where there’s definitely a concern about having enough of the species to keep the populations up,” Shaw said.
Poaching also disrupts complex wildlife relationships that form a healthy ecosystem, said Sristi Kamal, a senior representative with Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.
For example, the Oregon wolf population, which numbered 173 in 2020, plays a key role in preventing the spread of disease among deer and elk. Because wolves are more likely to prey on the sick, they weed out infected individuals before they spread their illness to the rest of the herd.
But when wolf numbers decline, disease can run rampant through herbivore herds unchecked.
“There’s roles that these kinds of predators play in our ecosystem that’s often overlooked because it’s not very tangible in terms of economic returns,” Kamal said.
According to the state police, 17 wolves were poached in Oregon between 2012 and 2020.
The state’s crackdown on poaching stems from the government’s view of wildlife as a valued natural resource. Poaching is viewed as a form of theft. Oregonians should be concerned when wildlife is killed illegally because it deprives others from experiencing nature, Shaw said.
“Oregon’s fish and wildlife belongs to all Oregonians,” she said. “It’s one of our natural resources. It’s something all of us have the benefit of enjoying when we live in this beautiful state.”
“I really feel that if people were more aware that this is a problem, they would care,” she says. “But the awareness may be missing.”
“This is our environment,” Shaw adds. “It’s the legacy we’re going to leave for our children. So it’s important that we take care of it.”
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit https://catalystjournalism.uoregon.edu or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.
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