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DWR works to put an end to poaching

Published February 14, 2012 7:26 am

Conservation • Patrols in high-risk times, which aim to fight illegal killings, spot alarming trend.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Juab County • Jay Topham pulls out his gloves and starts poking around the carcasses of two mule deer. Topham, a conservation officer for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), found the animals via clues provided by a concerned citizen who called the agency to report the find.

Topham checks the ribcage for possible bullet entry points or broken ribs and then looks at the legs. 

There are no obvious signs of bullet holes in the deer, which were probably last alive two weeks prior. There are compound fractures on at least one leg of each animal and signs that the skull was crushed on one of the deer.

Topham decides the animals were likely hit by cars and dumped at the location. He takes off his gloves and calls the citizen who filed the report. The conversation goes as expected until a concerned look develops on the game warden's face.

"He was glad to hear these two were not poached, but then he started to tell me about a big buck he has been watching that he hasn't seen for a while," Topham said. "He wonders if the buck just moved higher up the mountain or has maybe been poached."

Topham records the area where the buck was last seen and makes plans to make a patrol in the area.

This is a typical winter day for Topham, one of the 48 field conservation officers currently assigned to protect Utah's wildlife from illegal killings.

With the state's mule deer herd stagnant, DWR law enforcement officials decided to dedicate more of the field officers' times to winter range patrols.

The idea is not so much to catch poachers in the act — although that has happened — but more to let anyone considering illegally killing wildlife know that they could end up busted.

"We want people contemplating poaching animals to be worried and looking over their shoulder," said Mike Fowlks, chief of law enforcement for the DWR. "Seeing or hearing that our conservation officers are patrolling more frequently may prevent someone from poaching."

Officers contacted more than 4,300 people between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1 while spending nearly 7,000 hours on winter range. Sixty-three illegally killed deer were confirmed, 12 of them meeting trophy size requirements set by the Utah Legislature. The value of those 63 animals, also set by the government, totals $116,400.

Records show a total of 82 known poached deer in the same time a year ago, 11 of them considered trophies.

Attention is focused during this time frame because deer are more congregated on winter range and more accessible to being taken by poachers.

"It is a vulnerable time of year," Topham said while spotting deer as he enters a canyon not far from Interstate 15. "They are starting to come off the rut and they congregate more and are more visible. That lasts until the bucks start to lose their antlers."

The truck comes to the end of the packed snow on the road and Topham turns it around. Coming back down the canyon he pulls over to make room for a truck heading up. He gets out and chats with occupants. They are mountain lion hunters, including one from South Africa. He checks them for all the proper permits and climbs back in the truck.

Down on the foothills, Topham stops to scan the range for animals, alive or dead. Just a few minutes go by before a truck pulls out of the nearby house and the driver parks next to the wildlife officer. The two spend the next 10 minutes talking about everything from the declining number of deer in the area, to the restoration project that was recently done on the mountain, to the 30 tomato plants the homeowner says he lost to deer last summer.

Topham is patient and responsive to the man's questions and concerns. He says he will look into ways to help protect the tomatoes.

Driving down a dirt road along the foothills, Topham pulls over next to a gate leading to a field littered with cow pies. The offending perpetrators watch as he walks to what is left of a deer carcass.

"I'm guessing they were spotlighting when they shot him. They probably either got nervous and left or he must have run and they couldn't find him," Topham says.

In the truck, Topham calls up his email on a laptop computer and brings up a picture that was taken when the buck was alive a couple of weeks prior and not far from where it died. The photo was taken by a local photographer who provided the picture after hearing the animal was poached.

Topham learned about the buck when the landowner knocked on the warden's front door before all the warmth had even left the corpse.

The majority of poaching cases come from citizens reporting suspicious activities, dead animals or bragging from the poachers themselves. Topham said in his case poaching reports come about 50 percent from the DWR's phone or website tips and the other half are generated by people in his community stopping him at the store, the gas station and even by his house.

He estimates that 70 to 80 percent of those tips lead to an investigation showing that an illegal act had been committed.

Fowlks and Topham say they encounter poaching for food rarely these days despite tough economic times. Thrill killing, or opportunistic poaching as it is sometimes called, also seems to have diminished in recent years, but there is a trend emerging and it is a troubling one.

"We have seen a disturbing trend of more organized groups of people involved in numerous poaching cases and large numbers of animals," Fowlks said. "Poachers are refining their practices to collect trophy antlers and it is stealing opportunities from the general public."

brettp@sltrib.com

Poaching under investigation

An example of wildlife poaching cases in Utah. Call the UTiP hotline at 800-662-3337 if you have information on these or any other poaching incidents.

• Division of Wildlife Resources officials are investigating a case of two golden eagles being shot and killed in early January along a row of trees near Center St. and 7000 West near Hinckley. An eagle was killed in the same area in January 2010. Officials are seeking information about the incident.

• A Sevier County resident recently pled guilty to wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a Class A misdemeanor, for playing part in the illegal killing of three bobcats. The person was ordered to pay $750 in fines and $234.45 in restitution.

• Three Weber county goose hunters were charged with killing ducks out of season on Jan. 19. While goose season was still open, the duck hunt had closed on Jan. 14. A tip from a citizen led to the officials confronting the men when they were leaving the scene. They originally claimed they had only killed one goose, but five drake mallards, two hen mallards and a drake pintail had been left in the field to rot. The men were cited for wanton destruction of protected wildlife, a class B misdemeanor, and face possible hunting license suspensions of up to three years.

Source: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources —

Reporting poaching

If you have information regarding poaching in Utah there are several ways to contact the Division of Wildlife Resources.

Email • turninapoacher@utah.gov,

Website • wildlife.utah.gov/law/hsp/pf.php

Hotline • 800-662-3337