By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
No excuse exists to justify poaching here in the United States. That’s one of the few issues the entire outdoors community – from rock climbers and skiers to hunters and anglers – can agree on. From a scientific and moral perspective, it’s simply impossible to legitimize poaching of any kind.
Yet poaching is still a big problem, and not just here in America. Worldwide, wildlife face huge threats from poachers. Between 2014 and 2017, over 100,000 African elephants were killed illegally, according to National Geographic, and roughly 1,000 rhinos per year are poached as well. Much of this poaching activity is spurred on by a huge black-market demand for wildlife, especially in Asia.
In 2018, China legalized the mainstream use of rhino horns and tiger bones for medicinal use, despite no scientific evidence to prove that either item actually provides benefits to humans.
While our big game in America isn’t under as significant a threat as African animals, the overwhelming global shrug in response to poaching – especially from governments – is disheartening.
In particular, it’s downright unacceptable that here in America, our fines for poaching are laughably light. America is the city on a hill when it comes to wildlife management. As MeatEater contributor and Bear Hunting Magazine editor Clay Newcomb said recently, “Wildlife management in North America is a shining star on planet earth.”
Such a shining star, in fact, that the sale of hunting licenses, tags, permits, and stamps totaled $869.5 billion in 2019, the most recent year for which full data is available.
That’s an incredible number – and it doesn’t even start to factor in the economic impact of hunting, the total generated by excise taxes on gear sales, or money raised by non-profit conservation groups to support wildlife habitat restoration.
Yet, almost as if to spite the very lucrative machine that is hunting in America, our fines for poaching are embarrassingly light.
Adrian Wood, from White City, OR, was recently busted for poaching elk in Crater Lake National Park. He’d killed at least 13 elk, 12 deer, and one black bear.
His fine, according to MeatEater, was $42,500 in restitution to the National Parks Service, six months of detention at a residential reentry facility, and five years of federal probation. During those five years, Wood will not have hunting privileges.
He poached at least 26 animals (likely more, but officials could only verify the 26) and did so in a National Park, where those animals aren’t accustomed to being hunted. The fine Wood has to pay is less than a brand-new full-size pickup truck.
But I can’t get over the fact that he only loses hunting privileges for five years.
John Blick Jr., of Kansas, was also busted recently for poaching 60 deer. His punishment includes $327,641 in restitution to the state of Kansas, an additional $15,000 in fines, 14 months in prison, and a five-year suspension of hunting privileges.
Poaching 60 deer merits a paltry five-year loss of hunting privileges?
That’s just ridiculous.
Here in my home state of Utah, the maximum amount of time someone can lose hunting privileges for is seven years. However, sentences can run concurrently in Utah, which means someone convicted of poaching in two separate cases could face two separate suspensions.
What bothers me the most is that these poachers can theoretically hunt again. Sure, they’re saddled with the debt of paying huge fines, and likely can’t afford to go hunting, but will that deter them? Given how lackadaisical we are as a country about enforcing proper child support and alimony payments, I have a hard time believing someone who’s late on their poaching restitution payments will see state troopers knocking down their door.
Poaching is, of course, a criminal act, and criminals by definition don’t obey laws. That’s why an outright ban on owning any type of firearm will never stop its instances of criminal use, evidence of which you can read in this report from the Washington Policy Center. But it’s fundamentally wrong that poachers can hunt again once their suspension has expired.
The only reason I can see for the lighter sentences for loss of hunting privileges is to not too harshly punish those hunters who accidentally poach an animal. For example, Utah considers an elk a spike if it has at least one antler beam that doesn’t branch above the ear. Antler points must be at least one inch long to count as a “branch.”
If you shot what you thought was a spike elk, but it turns out the lone branch was one and a half inches long instead of one, that could be written off as an honest mistake. You still poached, but your intent wasn’t to do so. In those extremely rare cases, I certainly support leniency in sentencing. Even so, hunters have a moral obligation to never shoot an animal unless they are 100% certain of what they’re firing at. I passed up the bull elk of a lifetime a few years ago because I was only 99% sure it was a spike-by-six. I only had a spike tag, and a bull that unique doesn’t come around often. But I passed on the shot because I wasn’t completely sure.
Even in those situations, the responsibility falls on the hunter, and if the hunter chooses to take a risk, they deserve the consequences.
But outright poachers? They shouldn’t ever be allowed to hunt again.
Unfortunately, lifetime hunting bans aren’t handed down all that often. In 2020, a Michigan man lost lifetime hunting privileges after authorities tracked an 18-month period during which Kurt Duncan had 125 wildlife-related misdemeanors and poached at least 18 gray wolves.
His fines are paltry – $36,240, and that’s including the fines for the bald eagles he poached during his 18-month spree. Duncan only spent 90 days in jail.
As far as my research showed, that’s the only story in the past decade where a poacher lost hunting privileges for life.
We can – and should – do better. It’s time to start holding poachers more accountable for the damage they cause to the wildlife, and to the very rich heritage of hunting we all share here in America.
Spencer Durrant is a fishing writer, guide, and rod builder from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide for The Utah Fly Fishing Company, News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.