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Study shows surprising rate of mule deer poaching

New study indicates legal hunting is the primary cause of death for Oregon's mule deer. An equal number may be killed by poachers - a problem that is "out of hand"

By Richard Cockle
The Oregonian
Study shows surprising rate of mule deer poaching

Poachers often like to shoot deer as trophies, wildlife officials say. They can make thousands of dollars selling mounted heads as decorations. (photo by Nick Myatt, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

LA GRANDE -- The 62-year-old retired eastern Oregon businessman admits to poaching dozens of Oregon mule deer over the past 35 years with everything from .22-caliber rifles to scope-sighted hunting rifles.

That's the way he grew up in the Midwest: Poaching was a rite of passage in a culture of blue-collar rural men who held down their grocery bills by illegally killing a deer now and then.

In his view, most Oregon poachers are rural men like himself "who have been in the woods all their lives." The man, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because he could get in trouble, says he's never gotten caught.

Deer population

Early days: Mule deer numbers have fluctuated dramatically since explorers Peter Skene Ogden and John Fremont passed through Oregon between 1826 and the 1840s and reported seeing few of the deer. By the late 1850s, gold miners reported abundant populations in eastern Oregon.

Midcentury: Mule deer continued to increase during the 1930s, '40s and '50s -- a time when they had little to fear from cougars and wolves, which were largely wiped out by humans.

By the 1980s: The mule deer population topped out above 300,000. Voter passage of Measure 18 in 1994, followed by a bill enacted by the Legislature three years later to clarify the law, abolished the sport hunting of cougars and bears with hounds, resulting in a dramatic upsurge in cougar numbers and a simultaneous decline in mule deer in some areas.

Other species: Western Oregon's blacktail deer, a subspecies of mule deer, populations also are declining. They number about 320,000, down from 387,000 in 1998. The state also has an estimated 320,000 whitetail deer in northeastern and southwestern Oregon. They reproduce faster and their ranks are increasing.

But he's tapered off considerably in recent years: He doesn't really need the meat, and getting arrested would bring unpleasant legal consequences that he doesn't need at this stage of his life, he says.

But he admits: "It was a habit that was hard to break."

Poaching is a habit that too many Oregonians apparently share. Mule deer populations have  dropped in Oregon to 216,000 animals from historic peaks of more than 300,000 and poaching is one of the reasons why, state wildlife managers say. Current numbers are far short of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's mule deer population objective of 347,400.

State biologists recently discovered a shocking level of poaching while conducting a mule deer distribution study in central Oregon south of Bend.

"If we look at the illegal take, it's basically equal to the legal take -- it's bad," says Michelle Dennehy,  a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Salem. "Poaching is not ethical, it's not hunting."

Worse, the five-year research project shows poachers typically take female deer, said DeWayne Jackson,  Fish and Wildlife research supervisor in Roseburg.

"Does are extremely important" so the herds can reproduce, Jackson said. Legitimate hunters -- those who buy licenses and tags, put in for controlled hunts and confine themselves to designated seasons -- kill more bucks than does, he said.

The state study was conducted from Bend to the California border. Of 500 mule deer fitted with radio collars between July 2005 and last January, 128 died during the research. Of those, poachers killed 19 and hunters legally shot 21. Cougars killed 15 and eight were hit and killed by cars. Of the rest, five succumbed to coyotes, disease claimed five and four died while tangled in fences or from some other accident, Jackson said.

Biologists listed 51 as "cause of death unknown" but poachers could have taken some of those, he said. "Sometimes we just find the radio collar laying out in the sagebrush," he said.

Because the study wasn't designed to ferret out poachers, biologists don't know if other areas have comparable numbers of deer taken illegally, said Don Whittaker, Fish and Wildlife ungulate coordinator, but they suspect poaching is happening across Oregon.

Poaching "is out of hand in Oregon," said Ken Hand  of Klamath Falls, regional director of the 11,000-member nonprofit Mule Deer Foundation based in Salt Lake City. "It's going on all over the state, 365 days a year. From all the contacts I have around the state, I just hear about it constantly."

The chance of Oregon's mule deer population ever rebuilding seem pretty slim "with the predators out there, including the humans," he said.

Other killers


Oregon mule deer -- native to the state and typically found east of the Cascade crest --  are under intense pressure from predators. An estimated 5,700 cougars roam Oregon's forests and high deserts, up from 2,600 two decades ago, according to state statistics. Oregon also has 25,000 black bears, and Canadian gray wolves have staked claim to the state's northeastern corner. All three species prey on mule deer.

Automobiles, too, account for plenty of mule deer deaths. A Fish and Wildlife study documented 1,626 mule deer killed by motor vehicles along 150 miles of U.S. 97 and Oregon 31, south of Bend, between October 2005 and January.

Overshadowing all that in central Oregon are habitat issues, Dennehy said. Resort development, new homes and other human activities have sharply reduced winter range for mule deer, she said.

Expanding juniper forests are especially worrisome, she said. Juniper siphons away large volumes of water, leaving little moisture for plants and grasses that nourish mule deer, Dennehy said. The wildlife department is logging juniper in the Murderers Creek area of Grant County and culling dozens of cougar in other areas, including Harney County's Steens Mountain, to ease pressure on mule deer, elk and cattle, she said.

Poacher motivations


Poachers are the great unknown predator.

Deer are Oregon's most popular hunting species, and illegal hunters are motivated by all kinds of things, including a desire to get a jump on the hunting season, annoyance at state game laws, a  desire to shoot and kill something, or the money they can get for trophy heads.

Trophy animals can bring thousands of dollars for poachers who sell the mounted heads to people who want to decorate a home, office or business. The Legislature has tried to crack down on the practice, making it illegal to kill a deer with four points on each antler with a fine of $7,500, but the problem persists.

Hunting fees are another reason: Increases for licenses and tags brought revenues soaring to $21.6 million in 2007, up from $9.2 million in 1987. A "sport pack" of hunting and fishing licenses with elk, deer, cougar, bear, waterfowl, upland game birds, salmon and shellfish tags now costs $164.75.

Poachers may be filling in the gaps caused by an overall drop in hunter numbers in Oregon. The state issued 283,000 hunting licenses overall last year, down from 336,052 in 1987 and 329,211 in 1975, according to Fish and Wildlife figures.

It's difficult to catch poachers in the act, said Oregon State Police game officer Chris Hawkins  of La Grande. Many areas simply don't have many officers, he said. Wallowa County, the size of Delaware and Rhode Island with a population of 7,150, has three game officers, he said.

And poachers often work quickly -- within minutes after killing a deer, they move on, Hawkins said. "They take the backstrap and hindquarters and they're gone," he said, noting that scavengers strip the rest and scatter the bones within a week or two.

"Think of an elderberry bush out in the woods and how many elderberries you can pick off before a game warden walks by," he said. "We would have to be right there at just the right time."

As one poacher told him during a criminal case: "Some people do cocaine. Hunting is my drug."

Ways to address the problem include hiring more OSP Fish and Wildlife Division troopers, raising fines and offering rewards for turning in poachers, Dennehy said. The state hired two more OSP game officers this year in Bend and Prineville.

The Oregon Hunters Association's "turn-in-poachers" program, or TIP, offers rewards, but that won't cure the problem, she said.

"It's a very vast landscape," Dennehy said. "We can't have eyes everywhere."

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