PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon has a poaching problem. Data provided by Oregon State Police (OSP) Fish and Wildlife Division show more than 110,000 animals were illegally harvested between 2012 and 2020.
The vast majority were from the ocean, like pink shrimp, clams and crabs. Thousands of fish and other sea life were also illegally harvested, along with hundreds of mammals such as deer and elk. Then there are raptors and other birds like turkey and quail. OSP also tracks animals in other ways like non-protected wildlife, non-game migratory, all other game bird and threatened/endangered. When all of it is added up, 110,890 animals were illegally killed during the eight-year stretch between 2012 and 2020.
"We've gone to great lengths to bring the public on board with some of the issues that our fish and wildlife are facing at the hands of people who, frankly, disregard laws that protect our natural resources," said Yvonne Shaw, a public affairs specialist and the coordinator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's (ODFW) Stop Poaching Campaign. "The message I would like people to hear is we have had a lot of poaching, it's just that we haven't been good at telling the story."
The stories are often overlooked, and rarely get attention unless a large reward is offered.
There's the Nov. 24 case where in separate incidents, two trophy-class mule deer bucks were poached and left to waste in Grant County. There's also the Nov. 20 incident in Jacksonville involving a buck, and the Nov. 15 report of a cow elk in Tillamook County — just to name a few of the multiple of reports sent out in the past month-and-a-half.
"Oregon's natural resources belong to all Oregonians," said Shaw. "So when people poach, what they do is they take opportunity away from all the rest of us. Whether they denying a hunter or angler a chance at an animal or a fish, whether they're denying a photographer a chance at a great picture, or someone an experience with wildlife when they're out on a walk. Any of these interactions we have with our natural surroundings are impacted when fish or wildlife are removed illegally."
The Stop Poaching Campaign is a partnership between hunters, conservationists, OSP and ODFW. The team is trying to bring awareness to how poaching impacts the ecosystem and the animals they care about. Each organization involved provides a different perspective and skillset to helping solve the poaching problem.
"We work on the policy advocacy fronts, so we're working with the state legislature here in Oregon, and working with ODFW to have better policies for wildlife in the state," said Sristi Kamal, the senior northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "We also work on the ground with local communities, such as the ranching community, to promote the use of non-lethal tools and promote the coexistence of wildlife and people sharing the landscape with wildlife."
Kamal applauds the Oregon Legislature for taking action in 2019 to raise penalties on poachers, but says more can be done by elected leaders. The activist argues more funding is needed to assign more prosecutors to poaching cases because there are currently only two prosecutors in Oregon that work on all environmental crimes.
"It's the same courts that see the same cases as crimes against humans," said Kamal. "It becomes a situation of prioritizing, and unfortunately these cases are often not prioritized. We are trying to figure out how to get these cases in front of judges so the deterrence part actually works. So we'd like to see that unit get more prosecutors because it not only affects wildlife, but all environmental issues as well."
While Defenders of Wildlife works to solve poaching by using a three-prong approach of deterrence, enforcement and prosecution, the Oregon Hunters Association additionally plays a role in trying to push legislation in the state. It's members are also boots on the ground that help report poaching to OSP.
"The original program kind of depended on the hunting and fishing community and their eyes in the woods," said Steve Hagan, vice president of the Oregon Hunters Association. "Basically it’s always been, from the OSP point of view, the ones that I’ve talked to, about 90% of the cases they make are based on information coming from private citizens. Even though they have a number of resources at their disposal."
Furthermore, the hunters association sometimes provides additional financial rewards for people who turn in poachers through the ODFW TIP site.
"I know the three elk case in central Oregon from [October 2020] actually became pretty high profile for the people in the area," said Hagan. "We got a private donation from a non-hunter in the amount of $2,500. Which there was a goal to push that overall tip reward to over $10,000 dollars. That goal was achieved."
Defenders of Wildlife is also part of the Oregon Wildlife Coalition that is setting up it's own tip fund to cover more species in the state.
Aside from tips of animals already killed by poachers, OSP sets up sting operations to catch people in the act of committing a crime. These are often done by setting up a decoy in the woods, and watching for people shooting at it from a distance. Troopers look for people who have the wrong hunting tags for the unit, shooting the wrong kind of animal in the unit, and people that are flat out poaching.
"What we usually get is people with the right kind of tag, but shooting the wrong kind of animal," said OSP Senior Trooper David Herman. "We're targeting a specific problem and a specific type of person."
Both OSP and ODFW are concerned about what's called "thrill kills." It's when a person kills an animal with no intent to harvest it, nor do they have a financial incentive to kill it.
"I think people have been poaching and going out and what some people would say 'thrill killing' for many years," said Lt. Tim Schwartz with OSP. "I think it's just becoming more apparent through social media that it's being broadcast more. Every time there's an investigation that results in the apprehension of somebody, or a group of people that are going out and just killing animals, that's concerning. I think that will always be concerning for fish and wildlife."
The groups involved in the Stop Poaching Campaign all say people who enjoy seeing wildlife in nature play a pivotal part in stopping poaching. They want community members to report any suspicious behavior they see. It may not lead to anything, but it's the only way OSP can get ahead on a potential crime.
"What we want to talk about is unusual behavior," Shaw said. "If you seen someone fishing with two or three rods, or you know they caught something and they put it in an unusual container, or you're in an area and you think they caught a fish, or you think they shot a bird, but it's not really visible and they have a container hidden in the bushes. Just these little odd things. People do odd things to hide their behavior. That's the sort of thing people can call in [to] the TIP line."
Kamal adds that illegal acts can even happen in your own back yard, like when two eagles were shot in Portland during the summer of 2021.
"When you're out in the wild or enjoying wilderness, if you spot any sort of animal waste or any carcass, it is good to always be more cautious and report," Kamal said. "We don't expect every Oregonian to know when hunting seasons are, or when harvest seasons are... in that situation, keep an eye out for species that you know are never hunted in Oregon. For example, certain song birds."
While it's difficult to say if or when Oregon's poaching problem will improve, at least one thing is clear: Community members are an important piece to keeping wildlife in the wild.