Oregon Fish and Wildlife Trooper Darin Bean finds the deer’s remnants in a backwoods central Oregon home. He had been searching for the man who illegally shot the deer last January and now, months later, missed his court date.
Bean creeps around a dark corner and calls out to see if anybody’s home. He pulls back a yellow-crusted shower curtain and shines a flashlight on the stain.
“This is all deer blood, from where they had the deer hanging,” he whispers. “In the spare bathroom, you know.”
Losing female mule deer is especially harmful to a population already in decline — a population Bean and his law enforcement partner, Trooper James Hayes, have struggled to protect. Together they are the only Fish and Wildlife troopers patrolling a habitat roughly the size of Connecticut.
While federal authorities have turned their attention to global wildlife trafficking, resources for catching poachers have diminished in the Northwest.
As a result, police say, the vast majority of poachers in the Northwest go uncaught.
“We’re probably not scratching the surface,” Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Capt. Jeff Samuels said.
Based on biologists’ studies and known compliance rates, Samuels guessed his troopers detect about 10 percent of mule deer poaching.
“We expect them to do this broad spectrum of things for a huge territory, and it has got to feel like an overwhelming job,” said Oregon Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton. Helm, a lawyer and steelhead fisherman, introduced a bill in January that would have increased penalties for wildlife crimes.
The bill died in committee despite widespread support from environmentalists, animal rights activists and hunting and fishing groups who say wildlife crimes are given low priority in the courts.
“When they work up good cases against these poachers, we owe it to them to pursue these cases in court aggressively,” Helm said. “If poachers know they’re going to get off, they’ll turn right around and do it again.”
When the budget suffers, wildlife suffers
Mule deer’s steady decline across the West has resulted from habitat loss, disease and poaching. A study by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows deer poaching happens at a higher rate in central Oregon than legal harvest by hunters.
Rural towns in Oregon and Washington thrive on the dollars generated by outdoor recreation.
Rampant poaching also harms wildlife in a not-so-obvious way: When trophy animals are taken illegally, there are fewer prizes for those who hunt and fish by the rules. After enough bad fishing and hunting seasons, people will give up those sports — and stop buying fishing and hunting licenses, ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said.
Species conservation in both states is in large part financed by the sale of those licenses, along with taxes on ammunition and fishing supplies.
Add the toll poaching has on hunting and fishing opportunities to the list of other reasons for these declining fees and taxes and the result is a revenue shortfall for fish and wildlife programs. Dennehy’s agency faces a $32 million shortfall in its next budget cycle. Its counterpart in Washington faces a shortfall of $10 million.
“When we can’t offer as many [hunting] tags as we like — and that’s what’ going on right now — our budget suffers,” Dennehy said. “When the budget suffers, wildlife suffers.”
The days of the game warden are gone
It’s a clear day at Twin Lakes north of La Pine. Trooper Bean is standing in tall grass staring through binoculars.
He spies a campfire on the far side of the lake.
There he finds Larry Archer, whom he knows well, and Archer’s brother. They’ve each got a line in the water but nothing’s biting. Bean knows Archer’s license is good before he checks it.
Archer says he’s known Bean long enough to get in trouble once.
“Yeah, Larry shot our decoy one time,” Bean says.
“Blew him clean off his feet, though,” Acher says of the stuffed deer. “I don’t miss when I shoot.”
“Did you get a ticket, Larry?”
“Yeah I did.”
“That wasn’t fun. I’ll tell you what, Larry.”
“Hey, you’re doing your job,” Archer says. “You gotta do it.”
Bean and his partner, Trooper Hayes, have spent the past 16 years patrolling near La Pine. Both grew up hunting, fishing and hoping to become game wardens some day.
Today, they know roads their GPS doesn’t. Bean can’t buy chicken strips at the Gilchrist grocery without being approached with multiple leads. Ask Hayes about a white sedan or a red Jeep he spotted months ago and he can tell you what kind of tires it had.
“We’re both pretty successful at catching people,” Hayes says.
Bean and Hayes are more effective working together, but doing so too often means days when no one is on patrol.
Oregon and Washington have fewer fish and wildlife troopers than they had in the 1980s. The region’s population has grown by more than three million since then.
Meanwhile those troopers still working fish and wildlife enforcement have fewer hours to devote to such cases. To avoid deeper staff reductions and raise their profile, the states’ fish and wildlife enforcement divisions are also putting their troopers on other duties, like boating and ATV safety or drug eradication.
“Yeah, the days of just solo Fish and Wildlife are not anymore,” Bean says.
In rural Oregon, the presence of local law enforcement has diminished as federal payments have been curtailed for timber-dependent counties. That means there are times when state Fish and Wildlife troopers are also the only on-the-ground police.
On one weekend alone, Bean and Hayes handled arson, domestic violence, DUIs, hit-and-runs and burglaries. Bean says many residents call his cellphone instead of 911.
Shifts like these — working ATV safety detail or responding to general police calls — takes them away from tracking down poachers, Hayes says. “A lot of these wildlife cases take lots of hours, just sitting in the desert, looking for our suspects. There’s thousands and thousands of miles of road they can travel.”
Dissension in Washington
The way the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has dealt with these expanding responsibilities for its shrinking enforcement troops has contributed to dissention among current and former wildlife officers.
A group of them launched an online petition to overturn the current administration. Their union investigated Deputy Chief of Enforcement Mike Cenci and lobbied legislators and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission to intervene
Their main gripes: Too much emphasis on shellfish and not enough on wildlife. That, and too much work unrelated to fish or wildlife, like traffic stops or drug enforcement.
Todd Vandivert, a retired WDFW detective, has led the effort. In 2013, he self-published a book titled “Operation Cody,” detailing an undercover sting operation as well as his disdain for Cenci and the rest of the administration.
“When our administration prioritizes shellfish above everything else, something’s gotta give,” Vandivert said. “We only have so much time and money and manpower.”
Washington has 100 land-based officers and 27 in its marine division. The agency’s investigative unit, meanwhile, spends at least 70 percent of its field time on marine issues such as lucrative shellfish trafficking, according to an analysis of WDFW data.
“I would like to have the luxury of driving a game management unit and try to catch that guy taking natural resources when you’re not allowed to have them,” said Cenci, who oversees the agency’s marine division. “But I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve got a multi-million dollar commercial industry rife with complexity and high potential for abuse occurring at the same time.”
Concern over penalties
In Oregon, Bean and Hayes are going hard after a big game case.
In January, after months of pursuit, they arrested La Pine resident Gene Parsons, 37, for unlawful take of mule deer.
“That guy — one guy — killed a tremendous amount of deer,” Bean says.
Using a search warrant, Bean and Hayes seized nearly 20 antler sets, along with deer meat, firearms and controlled substances. Parsons has been charged so far with 15 counts of violating state wildlife laws.
Months later, Parsons has yet to stand trial. He has not responded to requests for an interview.
“He’d shoot five to six deer a night,” Bean says. “And he’d cut the antlers off. With a chainsaw. And bring ‘em home, and as far as we could tell sell the antlers.”
Where exactly poachers sell has remained a mystery for Bean and Hayes, but they’ve learned recently of a local antler dealer said to be in possession of several thousand dollars worth of stolen horns.
If they can connect suspected poachers like Parsons to the dealer, that can mean additional charges, such as racketeering. That would draw a stiffer penalty than a poaching charge by itself.
“If there’s no jail time involved and it’s just monetary small fines, they’re not likely to quit, if they’re the real criminals,” Hayes said.
Minimum restitution has increased over the years: Poaching a trophy deer will cost you $6,000 in Washington. It could cost $7,500 in Oregon.
For other species, the financial gains from trafficking eclipse the penalties. The highest estimates value bear gall bladders, used for medicinal purposes, at up to $10,000 on the black market. Oregon has no such restitution for poaching a bear.
“Judges all too often let poachers off with a slap on the wrist to go out and continue decimating our big game resources,” Rich Thompson of Traditional Archers of Oregon wrote recently in support of Rep. Helm’s bill intended to strengthen penalties for wildlife crimes.
In 2014, Bona Bunphoath — a man Vandivert called the “one of the largest illegal wildlife traffickers in Washington state history” — received 30 days of community service and 60 days of home detention after pleading guilty to four counts of first-degree unlawful trafficking in fish and wildlife. Bunphoath’s supplier was sentenced to 240 hours of community service.
“It’s very common,” Vandivert said “Especially in counties where they have a really big population base. First of all, they aren’t even familiar with the laws. And second of all, I think a lot of the big cities see it as, ‘So what?’”
In the course of a 19-month undercover operation, Vandivert said Bunphoath was involved in the sale of 10 elk, three deer and 11 sturgeon.
Bunphoath sees it differently. He said in an interview that he only bought enough to feed his family, not knowing it was illegal. Not until the state baited him into selling more, he says, did he expand his business.
“For them to say I’m the biggest bust, I don’t think I can ever agree to that,” Bunphoath said.
Prosecutors across Oregon and Washington shared mixed responses when asked about claims that fish and wildlife cases are handled inconsistently or given lower priority in the courts. Many said their approach to those cases is no different than any other type of crime. Others lamented budget cuts and limited jail space that make prosecuting all cases difficult.
Take, for instance, Ulys Stapleton, the district attorney and the lone prosecutor in Lake County, Oregon. Stapleton’s office often receives cases from Bean and Hayes. Hayes says jail time, not fines, has been a better deterrent against poaching. But Lake County’s jail has 17 beds and Stapleton says most are claimed by people involved in drug-related crimes.
“I understand why officers may be frustrated but you don’t have the resources to throw everyone in jail,” he said. “So, what I try and do is hit them up with a fine. Make it hurt for months at a time instead of a few days in jail.”
A missed opportunity
The sun is setting on a windy day in Lake County by the time Hayes stops his truck beside the antler dealer’s gate.
Bean pulls up minutes later in a cloud of dust, along with troopers from Bend and John Day who are also tracking sales from poaching suspects.
Hayes rolls down his window: “He’s not home.”
“Not home,” Bean echoes. “Did you see any activity?”
“It’s padlocked. Looks like one set of tire tracks came out of there maybe this morning.”
They meant to come earlier but Bean was called in as backup on a burglary that turned out to be a false alarm. The county sheriff had no officers available to send.
The fish and wildlife officers wait outside the property for a few tense minutes before the dealer returns a call to Bend trooper Travis Ring.
“Well, what’s the word?” Bean asks.
He’s gone for the evening. The antlers have moved on. His sale records aren’t at the house, either.
“I said, ‘I’m trying to run down some stolen horns,’” Ring tells them. “‘Who do you sell them to?’ He said ‘I’m running a business and I’m not in the business of telling you where I’m selling my stuff.’”
Without the dealer’s help, the chances of proving the sales involved poached antlers get slimmer. Short on options, they agree to return another day. So, they load up and roll out. And the hunt goes on.