Poacher Punishments
Getty Images: Spencer Weiner/Contributor

Are Poaching Penalties Too Light?

Are the punishments for illegal hunting too light?

Wildlife crimes seem like they are becoming more rampant across the country these days. It feels like we cannot go more than a day without hearing about someone charged with the illegal take of whitetail deer or other big game animals. Poaching cases increase exponentially during the hunting seasons than in closed seasons. Many poachers attempt to cover up their crimes by passing them off as legal harvests.

We feel bad for law enforcement. Many of these busted poachers are repeat offenders and game wardens simply do not have the numbers to keep up with their unlawful activities.

It makes us wonder if the penalties for violating our game laws don't hand down large enough punishments. Let's look at the subject a little more in-depth to try and figure it out.

There's more poaching than you may think.

Just this past season, in the area I hunt, a man was hit with 15 charges for illegally spotlighting nine trophy bucks with an artificial light and shooting them. I spent way too much time comparing the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' poaching bust photos to the bucks I had on trail camera. Fortunately, I didn't see any matches, but it was still depressing to know this had happened so close to my hunting area. Especially when I learned this guy already had a suspended hunting license stemming from a poaching conviction just three years earlier.

It seems like repeat offenders are a common thing in poaching crimes. In many cases, not even loss of hunting privileges, forfeiture of the illegally taken animals, guns, and other hunting gear seems to be enough of a deterrent. Because let's face it, a lot of people likely get away with poaching.

For instance, let's look at Texas, a sprawling state with 268,597 square miles of real estate. And less than 500 game wardens to patrol it all. That means each officer has a huge piece of real estate to patrol. And while our game wardens do an excellent job of catching wildlife violators, they are only human. There's no way they're catching everyone.

Not every poaching case is as blatant as the one that happened in my area either. Talk to any warden and you'll find there's lots of smaller cases involving someone who didn't think anyone would notice if they went over the bag limits on migratory birds like ducks or geese. Or the guy who has gotten away without purchasing a fishing license for years. Obviously, not all crimes can have a punishment worthy of a prison sentence or jail time, but it's clear the punishments for poaching are not enough to deter someone from doing something illegal if all they get is a slap on the wrist for the small stuff.

What are the punishments for poaching?

This really depends on where the poaching incident happened, and the type of crime committed. Generally, poaching cases involving small game or game birds like pheasants and wild turkeys usually have smaller punishments that usually amount to citations. Even in extreme cases like some poachers who went 151 squirrels over the limit in Missouri.

Cases involving big game, especially trophy animals like black bear, pronghorn antelope, bull elk, mule deer, and whitetail deer, usually bring on more severe punishments. Poachers who target animals with reduced numbers like mountain goats and bighorn sheep are usually hit with larger punishments if they are caught.

Still, here in the United States, cases resulting in jail or prison time are extremely rare except in extreme cases. For instance, a Nebraska man received a 30-month federal prison sentence for running a guide service that routinely operated out of season, or after hours with spotlights, often out of season or near illegal bait piles. Because illegally taken animals were often taken out of state, there were also multiple violations of the Lacey Act, which is in place to prevent trafficking of animals illegally. The owner for the operation, Jacob Hueftle, was also forced to pay $214,375 in restitution costs. The poaching case that happened near my house had the Michigan DNR seeking approximately $59,000 in restitution, which works out to a little over $6,500 per animal. Not quite as much, but that's still a blow to the wallet of this guy.

That's not to say one cannot get a huge fine for a single animal. In 2018, Travis Johnson was ordered to pay $53,000 in civil restitution fines after poaching a buck in Texas. Unfortunately, the large fine was only because of the awesome size of the buck, which scored approximately 278 inches Boone & Crockett, which would have made it the second largest buck ever taken in the Lone Star State.

Most poaching cases are misdemeanor charges at most. However, in states like Utah, they have changed their rules slightly in recent years to reflect the size of the animal being poached. If a buck has a large enough spread, or a high enough score, it becomes a felony charge.

On the surface I like that idea. However, I cannot help but wonder if that's slightly flawed thinking. Because it may reinforce the notion that smaller deer are worth less and can be taken illegally without much risk to the poacher. Perhaps we should be placing a greater value on each animal regardless of size. It seems like it'd be a bigger deterrent if the punishment was made to automatically be $10,000-$20,000 each for ANY deer killed in the first place. Then, maybe after say a $20,000 base fine, you can start tacking on the extra fines the poacher needs to pay for antlers that have a certain number of points or score high enough to make the record books. It's just a thought, but I cannot help but wonder if we are undervaluing the wildlife resources we all share just a little?

Taking away hunting privileges should only be one part of the punishment.

Whenever there's a big poaching story, I almost always see people suggest the violator should lose their hunting and fishing privileges, and I agree. I'm a big fan of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. This agreement creates reciprocity across the 48 member states when someone commits wildlife crimes and has his or her hunting license suspended. Lose your hunting license in one state and lose it in all of them.

It's a good start, but the revocation of rights seems to have little effect on serial poachers like the guy who shot those nine bucks in my area. Because he'd already lost his privileges. That's the most frustrating part for law-abiding sportsmen and women. Most of these poachers just do not care. In most cases, the loss of privileges is also only for a short time, between one to five years at the most.

Because let's face it, many poachers probably only get concerned when someone starts talking about fines or jail time. We get why the courts take away hunting and fishing privileges in cases like this, but we should probably stop pretending this loss of privileges is a deterrent for wildlife crime.

We should probably take poaching more seriously.

One thing I've noticed the past few years is how many African countries have stepped up their anti-poaching efforts. Granted, their poaching problems are slightly different than ours. Most poaching over there is done for money, here in the states it's mostly for vanity and laziness. Still, many countries have been unable to deter people from returning to poaching simply because the punishments were so light.

In 2019, the Congo put notorious elephant poacher Mobanzo Mobembo Gerard, also known as "Guyvanho" in prison for 30. Guyvanho was leader of a notorious poaching ring that left more than 500 dead elephants in their wake, and regularly engaged in shootouts with game wardens. It was clear authorities wanted to make an example of the man. Did it work? It's probably too soon to tell, but at least it feels like they are doing something to stem the number of incidents.

And to be fair, probably not every poaching case deserves jail or prison time. I think it should come into play more often for the more severe cases. However, punishments for more common poaching problems like over-the-limit scenarios probably need to be much harsher to send a message this type of behavior is not acceptable. Because as it stands, it feels like what we are doing is not working when people get caught over and over.

Poachers steal the precious natural resources we all love and share in the wild animals that wander our forests and fields. And when the punishment for stealing these resources is a slap on the wrist, it feels more like a slap in the face to everyone who tries to do things legally. It's time we started acting like these animals are the valuable resources we already know they are.

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels