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The Worst Poaching Cases of 2023

Let these wayward hunters be a cautionary tale.

Poaching—the illegal hunting of animals outside state guidelines—not only gives hunting a bad reputation in the name of greed, but it's also both dangerous and costly. Yet, already in 2023, many penalties and thousands of dollars in fines have been assessed to address these illegal acts.

In every case, hunting is a state government-regulated activity; and each state's wildlife agency explains how, when, and where the public can hunt. Each wildlife species typically is covered by its own hunting regulations, too, especially when it comes to big game hunting. This is why it's imperative to stay up to date on your hunting spot's regulations—because breaking the rules and poaching wildlife have serious consequences.

2023 has already seen a slew of egregious wildlife poaching incidents across the U.S. Here are some of the worst poaching cases of 2023 so far.

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1. Two Men Decapitate 15 Deer in Missouri

white tail buck

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As far as poaching crimes go, this may be the most gruesome one we've heard this year. Two men are facing charges in Missouri for a slew of crimes, including illegally removing the heads of 15 deer and leaving the rest of the bodies to rot. The investigation, led by Wayne County's new conservation agent, Luke Armentrout, spanned both Wayne and Reynolds counties. Armentrout uncovered evidence that led him to the two current suspects.

The two men are also charged with taking the deer in a closed season, taking the deer with the aid of artificial light, taking the deer with the aid of a motor vehicle, taking the deer from a public roadway, wanton waste, trespassing, and the illegal possession and transport of deer.

The Missouri Department of Conservation posted photos related to the alleged poaching, and residents were quick to condemn the act, with some stating that poaching has been a problem in Wayne County for years.

"I'm a landowner in Wayne county for 40 plus years and this has been a problem the whole time," Adam Vaught commented. "Great work getting these guys!"

Some commentators also called for stronger punishments for poachers.

2. Poachers Slayed Wild Turkeys With Silencers, Out-Of-Season

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In March 2022, Illinois Department of Natural Resources game wardens found the bodies of over 20 turkeys in Madison County. Now, in 2023, the 16-month investigation concluded with the arrest of seven out-of-state men.

The poachers did not have a permit and were harvesting the turkeys out of season (turkey season for the area starts in April). The men were also accused of killing the turkeys with AR-style rifles. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources press release, the rifles were "equipped with thermal imaging scopes and suppressors". Suppressors are illegal to hunt with in Illinois no matter the time of year.

The seven poachers charged are Dustin Goldsmith of McCall Creek, Mississippi; Hunter Baxter of Lucedale, Mississippi; Nick Henley of Monticello, Arkansas; Benjamin Emerson of Lucedale, Mississippi; Dakota Jarratt of Wilmar, Arkansas; Matthew McClendon of Augusta, Georgia; and Jacob Russell of Ruth, Mississippi.

The men face 63 charges, including misdemeanors and felonies, after being accused of taking the turkeys illegally. Baxter and Goldsmith apparently intended to profit off of their poaching activities and were hit with additional felonies.

3. Kansas Man Sentenced After Trying to Decapitate Moose, Then Leaving Meat to Rot

colorado moose

Getty Images, MizC

A Kansas man was finally sentenced for a heinous poaching act that occurred in September 2021. Steven Samuelson, 33, of Oakley, Kansas, killed a bull moose near Pike National Forest in Colorado, though he didn't have a license to hunt big game.

To make matters worse, he then tried to remove the head of the moose, unsuccessfully. After giving up, he covered the carcass with branches and left it to rot.

Luckily, a privately owned game camera recorded videos and still shots that put him and the moose in the area at the same time. The game camera's owner reported what they found to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who opened an investigation into Samuelson.

Samuelson pleaded guilty this past July. He received a two-year deferred jail sentence and two years of unsupervised probation. He was also fined nearly $20,000 and the bow he used was confined.

4. Poacher Fined for Killing Six Deer and Eight Elk in Oregon

Roosevelt Elk in the Oregon Coast

Getty Images, Charles Wollertz

Back in 2021, Walker Dean Erickson went on a poaching spree, killing six deer, both mule and whitetail and eight Rocky Mountain Elk, including a trophy bull. The full count of Erickson's kills includes two cow elk and three whitetail bucks from December 13, 2020 to January 3, 2021, and then another spree, this time without tags, from August to September 2021, when he short the trophy bull elk.

Erickson finally pleaded guilty in September of 2023, owning up to wasting game meat, trespassing, tampering with evidence, and hunting from a vehicle. Unfortunately for Erickson, Oregon had recently rolled out new state laws that elevate poaching crimes from a misdeamor to a felony.

As a result, Erickon's poaching landed him a felony sentencing, including a $75,000 fine, permanent loss of his hunting license, and two weeks in jail for each of the next three years during elk hunting season.

5. Hunting Influencers Sentenced in Largest Nebraska Poaching Case in History

bowmar bowhunting


Hunting influencers Josh and Sarah Bowmar were sentenced on Jan. 12 for conspiring to violate the Lacey Act, which "makes it a federal crime to break the wildlife laws of any state, tribe, or foreign country, and then move or trade the wildlife across U.S. borders," according to the Department of Justice, in addition to violating many Nebraska wildlife laws.

This sentencing was a part of the largest poaching case in Nebraska's history. On Oct. 18, 2020, more than 30 people pleaded guilty to poaching wildlife with Hidden Hills Outfitters. Those folks were assessed over $570,453 in fines and restitution money for shooting more than 97 game animals over five years. In addition to the fines, 53 years worth of hunting and fishing permits were revoked. Some of the poachers were even sentenced to time in federal prison.

The Bowmars' violations included turkey hunting without a valid permit, illegally transporting wild game meat and carcasses across state lines, baiting wildlife, and more. By committing both state and federal crimes, the Bowmars were sentenced to three years of probation and a hunting ban for the duration of the probation; ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and $25,000 to the Lacey Act Reward Account; and required to forfeit over $44,000 worth of property.

6. Pennsylvania Poachers Killed 100+ Deer 'Just For Fun'


Six poachers in Pennsylvania were charged in late May in connection with the killing of 100 to 200 whitetail deer between August 2022 and January 2023. Not only did these poachers shoot deer out of season, authorities said, but they also left all the carcasses and meat to rot.

This poaching squad consisted of three juvenile males and three 20-year-old adults from Greencastle, Pennsylvania. All three adults were charged with shooting deer outside of the hunting season, illegal use of spotlights, corruption of minors, and more.

According to Penn Live News, the six defendants face a combined total of:

  • 113 counts of the unlawful taking or killing of game or wildlife.
  • 207 counts of the unlawful use of lights while hunting.
  • 42 counts of the possession of loaded firearms in a vehicle.
  • 62 counts of restrictions on recreational spotlighting.
  • 62 counts of the unlawful use of a vehicle to locate game or wildlife.

Pennsylvania's 2022 deer hunting season ran from Nov. 26 through Dec. 10. Hunting outside of the state's season dates is illegal. Also, every hunter is obligated to make every possible effort to retrieve their wild game meat. In most states, this includes field dressing all four quarters and both backstraps for each big game animal shot.

7. Three Family Members Poach 6 Elk, Harass Herd in Idaho

Three members of the Idaho-based Curtiss family were found guilty of unlawful taking, possessing, or wasting of wildlife in Idaho this past May. This family has been suspected of poaching elk for several decades, according to authorities.

The incident occurred Nov. 2, 2021. Members of the Curtiss family spotted an elk herd on Bureau of Land Management land near Arco, Idaho. The three chased the herd in a truck for a "considerable distance," and then Donald and Eben shot at the elk herd from their positions in the vehicle.

In total, they shot and killed a raghorn bull, a spike, a cow elk, an elk calf, and two mature bulls. Leaving the raghorn, spike, cow, and calf meat behind, they drove on to recover the meat and antlers from the two mature bulls.

Unfortunately for the Curtiss family, two other hunters witnessed this incident and reported it to Idaho's poaching tip line.

"The three men accepted plea agreements with the Butte County Prosecutor's Office and pleaded guilty to a total of eight misdemeanors," the Idaho Department of Game and Fish said in a press release. "All other charges were dropped, or suspended, under the plea agreements."

8. Mother and Son Guilty of Poaching 2 Bear Cubs in Oregon

Two bear cubs

Getty/Tammi Mild

Shooting black bear cubs is illegal in Oregon. However, that didn't stop a mother-son duo from killing two cubs, as Wide Open Spaces reported in May. The pair pleaded guilty to trespassing on private property, poaching, and leaving two black bear cubs to rot in February.

While trespassing on private land, Gail Faye Freer and her son, Corey Douglas Loving II, spotted a black bear cub. Freer "encouraged Loving to shoot the cub, which he did," according to an Oregon Department of Fish and Game press release. They then left the cub, planning to return later to retrieve the meat.

When they came back to their illegal hunting spot, they spotted a second black bear cub. Believing it to be the same bear, Loving lethally shot the cub. After walking up to the dead bear cub, they were surprised to see two, not one, dead bears lying in a blackberry bush. They made no effort to retrieve the meat from either carcass, which were left on the private property.

Thankfully, an anonymous citizen turned in Freer and Loving via Oregon's poaching tip line, Turn In Poachers (TIP). As a result, Freer and Loving must pay $15,000 in damages, lost their hunting privileges for three years, and will be on bench probation for 60 months.

9. 2 Wisconsin Deer Poachers Face 102 Charges

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Eric A. Feavel, of Menasha, Wisconsin, and Travis J. Vander Heiden, face 51 charges each in connection with various hunting misdemeanors.

Jeff Nieling, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources game warden, followed up on a report of a vehicle spotlighting deer after legal hunting hours on Nov. 12, 2022. Nieling found the vehicle, followed it, and conducted a traffic stop. Vander Heiden and Feavel were both in the vehicle.

The spotlighting was reported to have occurred just a quarter mile from where a poached whitetail buck with its head removed had been reported two days prior.

Nieling said he asked Vander Heiden if they had any weapons in the vehicle. Vander Heiden responded by shining his spotlight into the backseat, revealing a crossbow and several crossbow bolts, Nieling said.

Nieling returned to the poached buck's location to search for a crossbow bolt. He and another game warden found one on the scene. "The bolt was an identical match to the 10 bolts that were seized from Feavel," said a criminal complaint from Feb. 20.

"Feavel is facing 51 charges, including one misdemeanor count of failure to obtain a deer hunting license; 25 misdemeanor counts of illegal shining of deer as party to a crime; and 25 counts of felony bail jumping," said the Waupaca County News. "Vander Heiden's 51 charges—all misdemeanors—include one count of failure to obtain a deer hunting license; 25 counts of party to a crime of hunting after revocation (second offense within five years); and 25 counts of illegal shining of deer as party to a crime."

Spotlighting animals while hunting deer is prohibited by Wisconsin state law. Also, legal shooting hours end 20 minutes after sunset; authorities said these two men were stopped around midnight.

How to Report Poaching

Every state has some kind of tip line to report illegal poaching. If you ever witness, hear about or suspect a poaching incident, call your state's tip line.

READ MORE: What Happens to Fish and Game That Gets Confiscated From Poachers?