The problem with poaching

One of two mounted Rocky Mountain elk hang in the entrance to the Oregon State Police building in Pendleton. The mounted elk were confinscated in 2001 after it was determind that the animals were killed by a poacher in the Tollgate area.

Despite a recent study by the Oregon?Department of Fish and Wildlife that indicated mule deer populations are at extreme risk from poaching, the problem appears to be less drastic on the eastern side of the state.

In the recent mule deer study conducted from Bend to the California border, 500 deer were tagged with radio collars and tracked from July 2005 through January 2010. Of those, 128 died, with 19 killed by poachers and 21 taken legally. 

“What I can tell you is the rate of poaching on the east side does not appear appear to be as high as on the west side of the Cascades,” said Jim?Cadwell, assistant district wildlife biologist based out of the La Grande ODFW office. “We’ve got a larger population on the west side to begin with.”

However, Cadwell said, the ODFW and the Oregon?State Police still consider poaching in general to be a problem in northeastern Oregon. 

Elk are another major target due to their large antlers; however, their populations are regarded as healthy and near target levels.

Poaching has a direct impact on other hunters; the more animals are killed illegally, the less hunting tags can be issued each year.

“We definitely have a concern about poaching. Animals are much more vulnerable at certain times of year. Bucks are in rut this time of year,” Cadwell said. “Up here in Union County, (poaching) occurs but not to the scale it does in other areas. Animals taken illegally reduce the population level; that level indicates how many tags we can issue.”

Mule deer numbers are down across the northeast region. Three years ago, they averaged 12.4 deer per mile. In 2010, that number — which takes into consideration the Wallowa, Wenaha-Snake,?Umatilla-Whitman and Ochoco-Malheur zones — has dipped to 9.7. 

The dip has been especially stark in Umatilla-Whitman, where the ratio was 5.4 per mile in 2008 and just 0.9 per mile in 2010. The northeast region benchmark is 14.2 deer per mile.

“We don’t have any hard numbers (for poaching),” said Steve Cherry, ODFW wildlife biologist in Heppner. “In the more rural areas we might have a little bit more poaching that goes on there, but for the most part it doesn’t seem to be a large issue, at least for Morrow County.”

OSP Sgt.?Chris Hawkins out of La Grande said that his office covers “a good part of three counties” with just five officers, making catching poachers even more difficult. Though the OSP computer system was down, Hawkins did a hand count and said he predicted each officer issued about 70 citations a year, from hunting with no license to unlawfully taking deer, elk or sheep.

“That’s primarily what we deal with, what we do. We are dealing with that a lot,” Hawkins said. “With our numbers we do the best we can to schedule ourselves when poaching activities are going to be more likely than not.”

But even with other techniques such as using decoy deer, the state police still rely on citizens to help be their eyes and ears.

“The more eyes the better,” Hawkins said. “Obviously they’re going to see more of the stuff than we do. Citizen complaints are very important to us.”

On land belonging to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian?Reservation, the issue of poaching has receded as fewer people are out hunting, said tribal game officer Jim?Curry.

“There is poaching going on. This year we didn’t have any so far that I could prosecute. In years past we’ve had some that have gone to court and been prosecuted,” said Curry, adding that he hasn’t seen many hunters out this year. “It varies year to year depending on economics. From what I saw around the tribal areas I didn’t see that many hunters out even during the pheasant season.”

If Curry does find a poacher, he can take several steps including seizure of the animal and firearm and even the vehicle, plus issuing citations.

But, just as it is for state troopers, the numbers game works against catching many hunters who are killing animals illegally.

“Because we’re so few out there in the woods, both on the OSP side and the tribal side, that’s how we get a lot of information — other hunters, people out in the woods seeing things and relaying that information on to us,” Curry said. “I encourage anybody who sees something like that to turn them into the police so we can take action on it because poaching is a theft from everybody because it’s a natural resource.”

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