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DNR's 'Wall of Shame' intended to curb poaching of big-antlered bucks

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If it's an honor for athletes to have their sports trophies displayed in a Hall of Fame, is it a dishonor for poachers to have their deer trophies displayed on a Wall of Shame?

Not necessarily.

Law enforcement officials who maintain West Virginia's "Wall of Shame" - a traveling exhibit of trophy antlers confiscated from convicted poachers - say poachers sometimes show up to admire their handiwork.

"Sometimes when the people who have had antlers confiscated hear their rack is being shown in our exhibit, they show up to see it," said Sgt. Jerry Payne of the West Virginia Natural Resources Police. "I've had them ask to have their pictures made, standing there with their 'trophy.'"

For the most part, though, poachers whose racks show up on the Wall of Shame tend to maintain a low profile. That's exactly what officials had in mind when they created the exhibit.

"We wanted to show the quality of some of the bucks that were being lost to poaching," said Capt. Kaven Ransom. "We wanted people to know that we were catching the poachers, and that we were confiscating the racks of poached animals."

The exhibit dates back to the late 1980s, when trophy buck poaching in southwestern West Virginia became epidemic. Four counties in the region - Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming - had been closed to firearm hunting for deer since 1979. Left relatively undisturbed, bucks in the area were able to live long enough to grow bragging-sized antlers.

The temptation proved to be too much for poachers, who either shot trophy bucks illegally with firearms or shot them out of season with bows and arrows.

"Once in a while, we would confiscate a trophy buck, and we'd take it to sports shows to display it," Ransom said. "As we began to accumulate more and more racks, it grew into an exhibit, and it kind of took off from there."

Along the way, someone tabbed the display the "Wall of Shame." The name stuck. Today the exhibit contains 40 sets of antlers, almost all of them from Logan and Mingo counties.

"[Natural Resources Police officers] Terry Ballard and Larry Rockel [who serve the two counties] are responsible for probably 98 percent of the arrests that led to us confiscating those trophies," Ransom said.

Poachers' names used to be exhibited alongside the racks they were responsible for, but officials soon decided against the practice. Today the officer manning the exhibit has a list that tells where each deer was killed, when it was killed, and its measurements using the Boone and Crockett Club trophy-scoring system.

Most of the antlers are simply that - antlers attached to small wooden plaques. A few of the trophies are classic taxidermists' "shoulder mounts."

"We've had a few taxidermists donate the work to mount an especially nice rack," Payne said. "Most of the ones that were already mounted when we confiscated them were home-done mounts and weren't very attractive."

The display makes two major appearances a year, at January's West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show, and at July's Chief Logan Hunting and Fishing Expo. "Other [DNR law enforcement] districts will borrow it from time to time for shows in their areas, but for the most part we keep it here in District V," Ransom said.

People who see the exhibit generally have one of two reactions, Payne said.

"One of the first things we get asked is, 'Are they from West Virginia?' because people have a hard time believing the state has places that grow bucks that big," he added. "And then, when they learn they are West Virginia bucks, folks are outraged by the fact that people are killing trophy bucks illegally."

Occasionally that outrage leads to further arrests.

"We get a lot of people saying, 'Well, you got this guy, but I know of this other guy that did thus-and-such," Payne said. "So the exhibit sometimes helps us get leads to other violators."

Killing trophy deer used to carry only minor penalties, but a law passed in 2010 increased the "replacement fees" charged for killing big-antlered whitetails. Poachers convicted of killing trophy bucks are now assessed fees that range between $1,000 and $2,500.

Despite the enhanced penalties, Payne said he and his fellow officers still have no shortage of poaching cases to investigate.

"The bottom line is that poachers don't think they'll get caught," he said. "But at least with the bigger penalties, I don't think we'll be seeing very many repeat offenders."

And those who are caught just might end up seeing their ill-gotten trophies hanging not over a mantelpiece, but on West Virginia's big-antler Wall of Shame.

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


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