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Poaching on rise, DNR officers say

John McCoy
Surrounded by trophy antlers and frozen carcass parts confiscated from suspected and convicted wildlife poachers, officers from the Division of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Section met at the agency's MacArthur office to discuss some of their most recent arrests.

For more on hunting and fishing, read John McCoy's Woods and Waters blog http://blogs.wvgazette.com/johnmccoy/MACARTHUR, W.Va. -- West Virginia deer hunters have killed a lot of trophy bucks this fall.

Poachers got their share, too.

In several parts of the state, Division of Natural Resources Law Enforcement officials have reported an increase in illegal deer kills. Many of those kills were trophy animals.

"Right now, there's so much activity we're having trouble keeping up with it," said DNR Police officer D.W. Hylton, who is stationed in trophy-rich Wyoming County.

On Wednesday, Hylton and other officers stationed throughout the state's southern and southeastern counties gathered at the DNR's MacArthur headquarters in Raleigh County to compare notes about their poaching arrests. About two dozen sets of antlers, several frozen deer heads, a few chunks of frozen venison and even a frozen bear cub carcass were set out in a conference room to illustrate just how busy a fall it had been.

"From the first of September through early December, we've made 311 arrests in our eight-county district," Hylton said. "Approximately 70 percent of those were for illegal killing of game or illegal possession of game."

Southern West Virginia is an area renowned for trophy deer. Hylton said a vast majority of this fall's arrests were deer-related.

Officer T.A. Petrunger of McDowell County believes the poaching increase coincides with a sharp increase in the number of available trophy bucks. A bumper 2010 acorn crop allowed deer to come through the winter in prime physical condition and jump-started bucks' antler growth.

"This year, with all the bucks out there, guys were anxious to get after them," Petrunger said. "Some of them ended up being too anxious."

A few poachers have fallen afoul of the state's "enhanced penalties" for killing trophy-sized deer. Under a law that went into effect in June 2010, poachers who kill deer with antler spreads greater than 14 inches can be assessed replacement costs that relate directly to antler size.

The replacement fee for antlers in the 14- to 16-inch range is $1,000. The fee increases $500 in 2-inch increments after that, up to a maximum of $2,500 for antlers with spreads of 20 inches or greater.

Petrunger handled the case that resulted in the harshest penalties so far.

"I was checking trout fishermen on Elkhorn Creek Nov. 26 when I got a tip about a guy in Newhall skinning out a buck. I went down and found a buck lying in the front yard, but no one was home at the time," Petrunger said.

"I left, but came back later. In the meantime I got a tip that the guy had shown two other big bucks to someone. I went back and looked around, and found the carcasses of two big bucks, tied together and hidden down in the creek bed."

When the homeowner returned, Petrunger interrogated him and arrested him for hunting without a license, illegal killing of a buck with an 18-inch spread, illegal possession of wildlife, driving with a suspended license and driving without insurance.

Jason D. Baker of Newhall pleaded no contest to the charges Nov. 28 in McDowell County magistrate court. Baker was fined a total of $2,200 in replacement fees -- the standard $200 for any poached deer, and a $2,000 trophy-buck enhanced fee. By the time court costs and fines for the other charges were added, Baker's fines totaled $3,524.

Earlier in the November, Mercer County officer G.W. Wood arrested 38-year-old Tommy Witt II of Princeton for the out-of-season shooting of a nine-point buck with an 18-inch antler spread. If convicted, Witt could face a $2,000 replacement fee and additional fines that could total as much as $1,000 more.

Not all trophy-buck poaching arrests involved enhanced penalties.

"Sometimes we use the threat [of enhanced fines] to secure confessions on other charges," said Hylton.

Greenbrier County officer N.G. Frangos used just such a threat to secure a confession in a Sept. 28 case.

"A guy from Renick was helping a landowner kill deer on crop-damage permits," Frangos explained. "Only antlerless deer are supposed to be killed on those permits. A big-antlered buck, with its antlers still in velvet, came walking by this guy and he killed it.

"When I interviewed the suspect, I didn't have very good information about what had happened, so I used the threat of enhanced penalties to get him to admit killing the buck. He did. He said when he saw the size of the rack, he just couldn't stop himself from shooting."

Frangos charged Jeremy Shuck of Renick with killing a deer during a closed season and with illegal possession of wildlife. Shuck paid $125 in fines, the standard deer replacement fee of $200, and $320 in court costs.

Officers said most poaching cases in the district generally follow one of two scenarios.

In the first, hunters in the bowhunting-only, one-buck-only counties of Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming take big bucks legally, but don't check them in so they can continue hunting for something bigger.

In the second scenario, poachers kill bucks in bow-only counties but travel to adjacent gun-season counties to check them as gun kills.

"When they do that, they retain their [single-buck] tag for the bow only counties," Petrunger explained.

Capt. L.O. Case III, the district's ranking officer, said officers would be able to secure even more convictions if their ranks weren't stretched so thin.

"Right now, [the Law Enforcement Section] is short 14 officers statewide," Case said. "In our district, we have at least one officer in each county, but some counties in other districts have no officers. We're currently working to get our force back up to full strength, but until we do we're going to have to do the best we can with what we've got."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

 


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