Hunting Accident File > VIOLATIONS > 2006

Poachers having field day this time of hunting season

Game Commission tries to deter practice by using decoys to catch poachers in act.

From The Morning Call
By Dan Nephin  - The Associated Press
October 17, 2006

Several weeks ago, a poacher shot what was all but certainly a 180-pound buck with a trophy-sized rack sawing off its head at the neck and leaving some 90 pounds of venison to spoil in a farmer's field.

For hunters in Fayette County, it will mean one less prized buck this season.

For Stephen Leiendecker, a wildlife conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, it was an all-too-familiar scene.

Poaching-related offenses typically account for about 2,000 or a fourth of all game law violations each year in Pennsylvania, but Game Commission officials say there's no way of knowing the true extent of the problem.

Though both poaching and combating poaching are year-round activities, this is the time of year when complaints really start rolling in, Leiendecker said, with a call or more every day.

Richard Palmer, the commission's acting director of Wildlife Protection, said almost all deer he has seen taken illegally are antlered.

''Now, if you need food, you'd shoot a doe,'' he said. ''Why do they do it in my experience? Greed. It's simply one of those things where it's, 'I want to do this.'''

The poaching also upsets farmers.

''If (hunters) want to come here and hunt, nine times out of 10, we'll let them. But this is why we don't,'' said Mike Lester, whose father owns the 154-acre Jefferson Township farm where the headless buck was found last month.

''It's just not the right thing to do,'' said his brother, Dave Lester. ''When I hunted, I didn't hunt for horns. I like the meat. There's people starving throughout the country that could probably use that meat.''

Catching poachers in the act is difficult. After shooting a deer, they will usually leave the area, returning later to get the deer when they're sure no one is around.

Wildlife conservation officers and deputies are also stretched thin. The Game commission employs about 130 wildlife conservation officers throughout the state. Leiendecker is responsible, along with two deputies, for 800 square miles in Fayette County.

Besides responding to poaching calls and conducting surveillance, he and other conservation officers respond to small animal complaints, pick up roadkill and run hunter-trapper education programs.

After investigating the poached buck, Leiendecker drove his Ford Expedition onto a hill in a farmer's field to conduct surveillance.

He was on the lookout for slow-moving vehicles spotlighting deer. Spotlighting is legal, but only until 11 p.m. After that, Leiendecker said, spotlighters are typically looking to ''jacklight'' use their spotlights to freeze deer in their tracks so they can easily be picked off.

Leiendecker hears gunshots on some of his patrols, but not during the couple of hours of surveillance he carries out this night.

Sometimes, the Game Commission uses deer decoys. Leiendecker will set up a decoy buck just off a roadway and use a remote control to move its head. Typically, they are set up on the property of someone who has reported poaching.

Though many people think decoys are used as a form of entrapment, Leiendecker said that's not the case. He can outfit the decoy with racks of various size and he doesn't use the largest rack possible so as not to entice someone into shooting at a trophy animal they otherwise wouldn't shoot, he said. Because of the time involved, the decoys are used only selectively.

Once, he said, he had the decoy set up and a poacher shot at it with a crossbow. The man was so intent on shooting it, Leiendecker said, that he was unfazed when Leiendecker walked up to him in uniform as he was readying another shot.

Poachers sometimes rat each other out, but Leiendecker said it is important for the public at large to get involved and let the commission know where and when poaching is taking place.

The commission doesn't break down poaching cases by species because the game violation laws doesn't make the distinction. Poaching includes jacklighting, killing a species out of season, exceeding bag limits and killing non-game wildlife species.

Generally, poaching-related offenses are considered summary or misdemeanor offenses and violators typically receive fines, but rarely jail time. The commission can also revoke an offender's license.

In a case three years ago, Michael Allen Lake, of Fulton County, was found guilty of more than 80 poaching-related offenses and fined more than $25,000. Investigators found a notebook detailing 250 deer and 82 turkeys Lake killed during two decades, many illegally.

Pennsylvania's laws governing poaching aren't as stringent as in other states, Palmer said, but the commission plans to seek harsher penalties, which would require legislative action.

''In some parts of the state, a box of 22s, a case of beer and a pickup truck that's a Friday night date,'' Palmer said. ''Basically, they're stealing an opportunity to the lawful hunter, but that's a loss to anybody who enjoys wildlife.''

Copyright 2006, The Morning Call

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