Deer Poacher Michigan
Michigan DNR

Michigan Poacher Facing $59,000 in Restitution for Illegally Killing 9 Trophy Bucks

Michigan man allegedly stayed out all night poaching deer.

A call for a domestic violence incident led the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to make a major poaching bust in Van Buren County Michigan in October. The DNR says 33-year-old Justin Ernst of Decatur is facing 15 charges from the DNR stemming from nine bucks that were poached and found stored in a barn. If convicted, he faces tens of thousands of dollars in restitution costs.

This is not Ernst's first run-in with the law. He had prior felony charges for possession of methamphetamine or ecstasy, fleeing the police, and a third offense felony for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. He also has a 2018 conviction from the Michigan DNR for illegally taking or possessing a whitetail deer. Investigators suspect Ernst regularly drove through fields shining and shooting deer in this latest alleged poaching spree.

According to a DNR press release, the DNR first learned of these new illegal activities while Michigan State Police were investigating Ernst for a complaint of domestic violence on October 17. The officers noticed some dead deer in a barn frequented by Ernst and called the DNR.

The owner of the barn gave conservation officers permission to search the property and found five 10-points and three 8-point bucks hanging in the barn.

"The homeowner told the conservation officers that Ernst was believed to be under the influence of methamphetamine," the DNR press release states. "They were also told that he often stays out all night, and the next morning there would usually be a new buck in the barn."

The suspect was nowhere to be found during this part of the investigation, but conservation officers Matt Page and Tyler Cole soon got a tip two days later, Ernst had been arrested for a domestic violence charge. The tip, called in to Michigan's anti-poaching hotline clued investigators in to yet another new buck being added to the barn. Upon further investigation, Page found another buck, a 9-point, that was freshly killed.

Ernst denied all allegations of poaching when confronted by investigators during an interview at Van Buren County jail. He told Page and officer Travis Dragomer his hunting license was revoked. Officers then obtained a search warrant and located a spotlight, a crossbow and one bloody bolt from Ernst's vehicle. They also found two shotguns, which led to the DNR hitting Ernst with two counts of firearm possession by a felon and two felony firearms violations.

Additionally, the DNR charged him with nine counts of taking big game illegally, one count of hunting with a revoked license, and one count of applying for, or obtaining a hunting license while ineligible. If convicted of all the charges, Ernst could be forced to shell out $59,500 in reimbursement for the bucks to the state. He was officially arraigned in 7th District Court in Paw Paw, Michigan on November 9 and is currently free on bond with a December 20th court date.

It appears the Michigan DNR is trying to make an example of this case as a warning to other would-be poachers as the state's firearms deer season rolls on.

"It's a shame that this criminal ruined the chance for ethical, legal hunters to have their opportunity to take one of these trophy deer," DNR Lt. Gerald Thayer said in the press release. "Not only did this felon steal from the natural resource, he also damaged agriculture crops, and has been doing so for some time. The financial penalty is the minimum he should serve."

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