Andrew Theen / The Oregonian

PORTLAND — In mid-November, state police troopers were called after a pair of bull elk was shot and killed one night in rural Union County. The massive carcasses were found 60 yards off a country road near Elgin, left to rot.

Within two weeks, officials had charged two locals in the illegal killing and said they believed a third suspect — one with a history of poaching — had fled the state.

The arrests in the Nov. 16 incident represented a rare victory for the state in the eternal struggle to police illegal hunting activities. In the past three months alone, Oregon State Police has asked for help tracking down poachers in Union, Klamath, Wheeler, Douglas, Columbia, Hood River and Lincoln counties. Amid the recent flurry of agency news releases about big game poaching comes the stark reality: This is nothing new.

“We do have a problem with poaching,” said Capt. Bill Fugate, a state police spokesman.

The illegal killings are a source of pure disdain for the vast majority of hunters, who willingly follow a litany of state regulations and vie for tags to hunt bull elk and other large game. Regardless of where non-hunting Oregonians may stand on the merits of the pastime, which is a way of life for some and a hobby for others, the few bad actors are a universal nuisance.

Duane Dungannon, state coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association, said nothing gets his group’s members more enraged like recent poaching in Elgin and elsewhere. Such incidents are often the most shared on social media.

“They can’t even get a tag,” Dungannon said of members who might be frustrated with limited hunting opportunities, “and you’ve got some numbskull out there (killing animals illegally).”

“People get pretty incensed when they see that,” he said.

Since 2012, state police have averaged 764 poaching investigations a year, most involving elk or deer.

But occasionally such “illegal harvests” claim a prized and protected animal, such as bighorn sheep. Hunters must win a lottery for the coveted once-in-a-lifetime tag to legally hunt a bighorn. Just 96 were issued last year. In April, two men were arrested in Gilliam County for the brazen poaching of two sheep off of Interstate 84.

But catching poachers is the exception, even with the efforts of the Oregon Hunters Association and law enforcement officers who closely track the issue. Oregon is a big state, and the agency’s fish and wildlife division has just 120 troopers assigned to enforce hunting and fishing activity on the ocean, in the mountains and in far-flung areas like Elgin.

While state officials estimate Oregon’s mule deer and elk populations to be above 360,000, it’s unclear how many animals are killed illegally each year. State troopers often rely on decoy deer, which are legally recognized as game animals, to entice poachers to shoot. Regardless, the 750-odd illegal harvests recorded each year are on the low end.

“We just barely scratch the surface, I believe, on what we catch,” Fugate said.

Why people poach

Jim Akenson, conservation director with the Oregon Hunters Association, said it’s hard to know what drives poaching. It could be a person’s “frustration with regulations” tied to hunting and the expense of a license, which can run $32 for big game, plus the $46 for an elk tag for Oregon residents.

“There’s another small segment that may (poach out of) desperation,” Akenson said, citing those who hunt for food and can’t afford a license or tag.

The incidents that he and others don’t understand are those like the Elgin killings, where the animals’ carcasses are left whole — prized antlers and all. He said it was “almost an act of anger” and likened it to “wildlife management terrorism.”

Akenson attributes some of the poaching to broader community woes. People are more impatient these days.

“We have an instant gratification society, and I think that has bled over somewhat to the expectations in the hunting community,” he said.

No different than past years

The majority follows the rules when they hunt and fish in Oregon, where records show 334,498 people have valid hunting licenses. Last year, state troopers reported more than 20,358 contacts with big-game hunters in the field.

People are required to get licenses from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and — depending on the animal, season and region of the state — put in for a tag to hunt.

Though it’s early in the hunting season, state police have already recorded 333 illegal harvests this year, according to numbers provided to The Oregonian. Those numbers should escalate through the end of the calendar year.

What qualifies as an illegal harvest could vary from killing a cow elk during bull season to killing an animal out of season, or so-called “party hunts,” where a group of a dozen hunters has four tags and gets four animals.

State Police Capt. Jeff Samuels, who leads the fish and wildlife division, said other poaching incidents include shooting an animal at night, trespassing and killing an animal on private land, or events like the Elgin situation where animals are left to waste on the side of the road. State officials can’t quantify an increase in those incidents, but they do tend to draw attention to them, due to the outrage factor.

The hunters’ association, which counts 10,000 members across the state, is a significant ally in tracking down violators. The organization has raised money through its Turn-In-Poacher hotline for years. OHA has distributed $7,800 in rewards so far this year for tips that led to poaching charges. In 2015, it gave out $13,300, which officials say is about average.

In the Elgin poaching case, troopers praised the “overwhelming support from the community” in helping track down the poachers. Brianna Black and Dylan Crouch were charged with three misdemeanors of aiding in a game violation. Nathan Crouch, who police say left the state, faces two counts of unlawful killing of a bull elk, hunting with the aid of a motor vehicle, two counts of waste of a game animal, and a handful of other charges.

Officials say Nathan Crouch also illegally killed a bull elk a few years’ prior.

The Oregon Hunters Association’s TIP line is 1-800-452-7888.

15784968