A six-year state study shows that poachers could be killing more mule deer than hunters do in the woods around Bend down to the California-Oregon border.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found that 5-13 percent of the 178 radio-collared mule deer that died in the study period of October 2005 to May 2011 were likely killed by poachers. Hunters killed 11 percent of the deer in the report, part of a study of mule deer population and migration in south-central Oregon.
“It was based on the information that was available when we retrieved the collar,” said DeWaine Jackson, the wildlife research manager in charge of the study for the ODFW.
Evidence of poaching included signs of bullet or arrow wounds, and collars cut from deer, outside of hunting season. While the state biologists monitoring deer herds in Central Oregon know that poaching is a problem, it still was startling to see the high percentage of poaching deaths found in the study.
“We knew we were losing quite a few,” said Steven George, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Bend, “but to what level we didn’t know.”
While the cause of death for 46 percent of the deer was listed as unknown, Jackson said it would be accurate to assume that the same percentages for the known causes would hold true for those deer.
The Oregon State Police troopers of the Fish and Wildlife Division, who watch for poachers in Central Oregon, were also surprised to hear the state’s findings about poaching. OSP Trooper Travis Ring, who patrols near Bend and La Pine, said 90 percent of the people he encounters during hunting season are following the rules.
“Most of the people are on the up and up,” he said.
Deer-hunting season in Central Oregon lasts for 10 days in the fall for hunters using rifles or shotgun. Archers hunt during a season about a month long. Each year hunters apply for tags allowing them to kill a deer in different units around the state, with the most popular having lotteries to determine who gets the tags.
Ring said much of the poaching during deer season falls into two categories: poachers killing deer in units for which they have no tag; and poachers killing deer and then putting a friend or relative’s tag on it.
Central Oregon is wintering range for mule deer, so much of the poaching that occurs here happens out of deer-hunting season, he said, when the animals move out of the mountains in search of food. The Metolius Unit, the forest around the Metolius River near Camp Sherman, is prime wintering range and is often the hardest hit by poaching.
That’s where Ring, who has been a trooper for seven years, said he saw one of the worst cases of poaching he’s ever seen. He said a trio of teenage boys — one from Bend, one from Sisters and one from Gold Hill — on as many as three nights a week during late 2011 and early 2012 illegally shot deer in the Metolius Unit. The teens, Ring said, likely killed more than 100 deer.
“For them it was thrill kills,” he said.
He suspects that’s often the motivation for poachers, despite arguments that the deer were taken to supply food to the poachers’ families.
“They are spending more in gas to get there than (it would cost) to buy the food,” Ring said.
He said an ongoing poaching investigation, involving five dead mule deer found with their heads cut off and another deer left to waste east of Bend in November, also proves the point. “Those were killed for antlers,” he said.
No suspects have been arrested in that investigation.
In Central Oregon, a team of seven troopers like Ring spends most of its time enforcing fish and wildlife laws. Along with patrols, they use deer decoys and night flights — employing aircraft to find the spotlights of poachers. Ring said the troopers are shorthanded, with the team covering Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, as well as parts of Klamath and Lake counties.
In an effort to support the troopers, hunting groups offer rewards for tips that lead to the arrest and conviction of poachers. Mike Whitney, Central Oregon director for the Oregon Hunter’s Association, said he’s following cases as they go through the court system. Sometimes he even testifies on behalf of law-abiding hunters, describing how poaching harms wildlife and ruins hunting opportunities. He said he pushes for the strictest penalties for poaching, such as loss of any hunting privileges and jail time.
Whitney said he wasn’t surprised to hear the findings in the state’s study, that poachers could be killing more deer than hunters are killing in Central Oregon.
“It’s just getting rampant,” he said.
To report possible poaching call the Turn-In-Poachers tip line at 1-800-452-7888 .