Poachers continue to do incredibly stupid things.
If you have ever talked to a game warden, odds are you've heard some unbelievable stories of the dumb things people have done. It never ceases to amaze us when watching a show like "Lone Star Law" on TV, how many people think the game warden will fall for their: "I'm not fishing, I was just watching my friend/spouse/kid fish," excuse for not having a license.
It should go without saying, but conservation officers are not dumb. They have heard every excuse in the book for someone's unlawful activities. Fortunately, most of the illegal activity game wardens deal with is relatively minor.
However, some poachers simply aren't thinking things through before they do them. It becomes more obvious with some of the poaching stories we're sharing here today. These wildlife criminals did some incredibly dumb things that ultimately led them into run-ins with the long arm of the law. This isn't the first piece like this we've written, and it probably will not be the last. They just keep making these kinds of mistakes!
Poaching while allegedly high on meth.
This one happened in Michigan during the 2021 seasons. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources acted on a tip to their anti-poaching hotline that 33-year-old Justin Ernst of Decatur was frequently staying out all night poaching deer with a spotlight. The informant was the owner of a barn Ernst was using. They also told the DNR they believed he was allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine. Ernst would allegedly stay out all night and every morning. And usually, a new buck would appear hanging in the barn each morning. After the DNR searched the barn, they found five 10-pointers and three 8-pointers hanging in the barn. Ernst was not around at the time of the raid. However, DNR officers later interviewed him after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
Upon further investigation, the DNR found another buck, a 9-pointer had been added to the barn since they had last investigated it. Ernst was already a convicted felon, so he was not allowed to possess a firearm already. He was originally facing over $59,000 in fines. However, Ernst later took a plea deal that took his fines down to $25,000. He also forfeited all the gear used in the poaching, lost his hunting privileges for life, and was sentenced to 18 months to five years in prison.
Claiming he thought a bighorn sheep was an elk.
Unbelievably, this is not the first time someone has tried to use this excuse. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department busted 45-year-old Harold Horine after a tip that a bighorn sheep had been shot and left to rot near the Highland Mountains in 2021. After he was confronted by law enforcement, he tried to defend his actions as a case of mistaken identity. He told investigators he thought he was shooting at an elk hen he poached the ram. Obviously, neither game wardens, nor the many hunters in Big Sky Country really seemed to believe that defense.
Considering big horn sheep tags are notoriously difficult to get, it made this case even sadder since it appeared Horine had shot a full-curl ram. Horine later pleaded guilty to the crime and was ordered to pay $5, 245 in restitution costs. Considering the maximum penalty for poaching a sheep in Montana is $30,000, it seems to us he got off easy for this one.
Using homemade electrofishing equipment
Aside from being illegal, this just seems like a bad idea from a safety standpoint. The Oklahoma Game Wardens were doing a routine patrol on the Red River in McCurtain County on the 4th of July weekend 2021 when they ran across some suspects who appeared to be preparing to go fishing by launching a boat. However, the unnamed number of suspects only had a cooler and four dip nets on the boat.
Obviously, this immediately raised some suspicion with the officers. Their suspicion was on the money because another vehicle appeared with two jet skis ready to launch. A second look at the jet skis revealed they were outfitted with homemade electrofishing equipment. Obviously, the wardens confiscated the redneck fishing gear and issued citations. It seems likely actions of the wardens put a damper on these would-be poacher's planned holiday fish fry.
Shooting over 400 squirrels in two days.
One of the most common violations for any game warden is an over-the-limit charge. However, some poachers in Missouri took things to an extreme in September 2021. Acting on a tip to the state's anti-poaching hotline, Missouri Department of Conservation officers caught 16 people with 471 squirrels in their possession at the Current River Conservation Area.
Considering that Missouri's limit is 10 squirrels per hunter each day, this group was grossly over the limit, by 151 squirrels to be precise. The extra squirrels were confiscated, and all the poachers were cited in the case. How they thought they could get away with neglecting the bag limits to such an extreme in a public area like this is anyone's guess. Someone is going to notice if you go over the limit!
Using poached deer carcasses as eagle bait.
Some things are so bizarre, there is no way you can make them up. This one happened in Klickitat County, Washington in 2018. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers were called in to assist a sheriff's deputy dealing with a strange case involving four teenagers. The deputy had caught the teens with a loaded rifle in their car near the Klickitat River. The deputy suspected something was up upon finding fresh deer hair and blood in the car.
Once the game wardens got involved, it didn't take them long to unravel the case and catch a fifth suspect in the process. The wardens quickly located four deer carcasses piled up near where the car as parked. Further questioning led the suspects to admit the deer were poached at night using a spotlight. The deer were then piled up to use as bait for eagles. One of the teens admitted to having shot at least one. Authorities couldn't find the shot eagle, but they had more than enough to file charges against the suspects.
Stashing a poached buck in the freezer.
Indiana's Mark Gill thought he could pull a fast one in 2016 after he poached a monster, 20-point non-typical whitetail buck. He shot this deer after he had already taken a buck that season. The Hoosier state has a strict one buck rule. Realizing he would never get away with this because of his already filled tag, Gill decided to stash the buck in his freezer until the following year when he checked it in with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources trying to claim it as a legitimate kill. He probably thought he was being clever with this scheme.
However, somebody is always going to know something about a monster buck like this. And the person who did turned Gill in via the state's anti-poaching hotline. Gill later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for providing false information and unlawfully harvesting a whitetail deer. He was forced to do 100 hours of community service, pay $741 in fines, and was given 540 days of probation. The poacher also had his hunting license suspended for two years.
Shooting from the road and ruining the hunt of a lifetime.
In 2018, 73-year-old Joe Wiltzius was one of just five people who had tags for Wisconsin's first elk hunt for non-indigenous residents in more than a century. Wiltzius was the recipient of a tag that as raffled off by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Unfortunately, when the time for the hunt finally arrived, and Wiltzius got his chance, the bull was standing on Forest Road 174 in Sayer County's Round Lake Township. The man decided to shoot anyway, dropping the first bull taken by a hunter there in over 100 years.
However, Wisconsin regulations do not allow the discharge of a firearm across a roadway. And Wisconsin officials determined he was standing on or in the road hen he shot at the bull. DNR biologists called in to verify the kill and take samples as required by law realized this and reported it to game wardens, who seized the animal and cited the would-be hunter. The sad part of this story is that the hunter had been with a guide who should have known better. Talk about a black eye for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in having their big winner turn into a poacher before their eyes.
Selling undercover officers illegal hides and wolf teeth necklaces.
Michigan's Kurt Johnston Duncan was the subject of an 18-month investigation by the Michigan DNR and later pleaded guilty to seven poaching crimes in Chippewa County District Court. Officials believe he poached a little of everything including deer, bear, bobcats, turkeys, gray wolves, and even bald eagles using illegal snares. He was charged with a staggering 15 misdemeanors for wildlife crime, eventually pleading guilty to three counts of illegal take and possession of wolves, three counts of illegal take and possession of bald eagles, and one count of illegal commercialization of a protected species.
Some of the best evidence against Duncan was when he sold hides and wolf teeth necklaces to an undercover DNR officer. Duncan later told investigators he poached animals "because he could" and because "he enjoyed it." Not surprisingly, Duncan lost all hunting and fishing rights forever in Michigan 47 other states as part of the interstate wildlife violator compact. He was also fined $36,000 in fines and reimbursement, and was given 90 days in jail.
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