By Chris Lawrence
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — As reported here in recent weeks, law enforcement from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources was able to break up a fairly organized poaching ring. Brothers Steven and Max Tyson were charged with running an illegal butcher shop.
According to the investigation, the shop would accept deer, many of them killed on crop damage permits and others simply shot illegally and out of season. The deer were then processed and the meat sold. Working with undercover officers of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries it was revealed some of the meat was sold across state lines.
The investigation resulted in various other charges against various other individuals. Some of them included drugs and other illegal activity. But Steven Tyson pleaded no contest and when the case was finally adjudicated, his total of fines and court costs was $1,261.75. Some believed the amount was far too low.
Captain Tom Stuckey with the Natural Resources Police told me most of the meat being sold had been processed into bologna. There was no evidence of the sale of back straps, tenderloin, shoulders, hams, roasts, steaks, etc. When you considered the number of deer involved it had become an illegal money making enterprise. Stuckey told me there would be an average of 15 pounds of bologna in a typical deer. If the bologna was sold at $5 per pound, one deer would bring $75. When you consider this process using 200 illegally killed deer, it’s easy to see how the dollars multiply for bologna alone. Therefore, paying just over a thousand dollars is in some ways the “cost of doing business.”
The bigger issue here is the very act of selling wild game. The action violates the entire premise on which the North American game model is based. Before we had game laws in the United States, commercial hunting was common. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the movies of buffalo hunters scouring the Great Plains of the west. There was no limit, no season, and no regulation. The buffalo were slaughtered to the brink of extinction. The same thing happened with whitetail deer, wild turkey, bear, and other species. They weren’t as romanticized as the buffalo. Commercial freshwater fishing on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers caused similar impacts.
President Theodore Roosevelt was among those who championed game laws and hunting and fishing regulations. The core principle of the North American Model is the game and fish belong to everybody. You may own the land, but the wildlife belongs to the people. The laws were made for the common good of all to conserve and regulate the use and taking of wildlife. The laws effectively ended the era of the buffalo hunters for good. It also insured every American would have a chance to hunt and fish. In Europe, wealthy land barons or the royal family own the land–and the game on the land.
Today, in some cases we are headed in the other direction. Under the North American Model, hunters are relied upon to be the biggest controller of game populations, particularly white tail deer. However, there are limits on what we can kill, when we can hunt, and how many we can take–even on our own property. But as fewer people hunt and hunting is more restricted, wildlife has been unchecked and grown too far. It’s so bad in some places, government has taken the steps of hiring sharpshooters to thin the numbers.
There are plenty of debates over the methods of reducing animal numbers when they become a over abundant, but the heart of conservation will always come back to the core principle of wildlife belongs to the people and taking wildlife outside the law (aka poaching) is stealing from the rest of us.
The legislature a few years back passed a law which institutes a point system for calculating fines when a poacher illegally kills a buck. The fine is linked to the size of the buck’s antlers and the bigger the rack, the more costly it becomes. The fines can grow into thousands of dollars. Poaching a buck for its antlers and getting caught will pinch you severely in the pocketbook. But the pinch isn’t nearly as painful for taking small bucks or does, which was the case here.
But the legislature only sets the minimum and maximum amounts or creates the mechanism by which it’s calculated. The ultimate decision on how much a guilty party will pay lies with a judge or magistrate. Every judge is different in their view of the seriousness of game laws. What may seem to be a terrible offense to one judge may seem like small potatoes to another. Natural Resources Police have told me consistently for years they are frustrated when they pour weeks and months into an investigation which resulted in no more than a few hundred dollars in fines because the magistrate deemed it a small crime. There are other judges who consistently impose the maximum possible fines and jail time for a guilty party. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw on judge for a poacher.
Until members of the legislature and the judiciary change their attitude toward the fines and punishment for poaching, the practice will continue and grow. Currently, many believe the punishment isn’t acting as an effective deterrent.