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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Northwest Poachers Rarely Caught And Lightly Punished

Oregon State Fish and Wildlife troopers James Hayes, left, and Darin Bean patrol several thousand square miles in Central Oregon, where mule deer are in decline.
EarthFix Photo/Tony Schick
Oregon State Fish and Wildlife troopers James Hayes, left, and Darin Bean patrol several thousand square miles in Central Oregon, where mule deer are in decline.

LA PINE, Oregon – The doe wandered across the wrong property. What’s left of her was a blood stain in a bathtub.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife Trooper Darin Bean found the remains in a house here in the high country. He had been searching for a man who had illegally shot a deer and had missed his court date.

Bean crept around a dark corner. He pulled back a yellow-crusted shower curtain.

“This is all deer blood, from where they had the deer hanging,” he whispered. “In the spare bathroom, you know.”

Losing female mule deer is especially harmful to a population already in decline – a population Bean and his partner, James Hayes, have struggled to protect. Together they are the only Fish and Wildlife troopers patrolling thousands of square miles.

While federal authorities have turned their attention to international wildlife trafficking, resources for catching poachers have declined in the Northwest.

As a result, police say, most poachers in the Northwest go uncaught.

“We’re probably not scratching the surface,” state Fish and Wildlife Capt. Jeff Samuels said.

Based on biologists’ studies and known compliance rates, Samuels guessed his troopers detect about 10 percent of 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.”

Mule deer have been in steady decline across the West 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.

Rural towns in Oregon and Washington thrive on the dollars generated by outdoor recreation.

Game Warden Days

It was a clear day at Twin Lakes north of La Pine. Trooper Bean stood in tall grass staring through binoculars.

He spied a campfire on the far side of the lake.

There he found Larry Archer, whom he knew well, and Archer’s brother. They each had a line in the water but nothing was biting. Bean knew Archer’s license was good but he checked it anyway.

They chat about a time when Archer got in trouble.

“Yeah, Larry shot our decoy one time,” Bean said.

“Blew him clean off his feet, though,” Archer said of the stuffed deer. “I don’t miss when I shoot.”

Archer got a ticket, but he doesn’t hold it against Bean.

Bean and Hayes have spent the past 14 years patrolling around La Pine. Both grew up hunting, fishing and hoping to become game wardens.

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 say what kind of tires it had.

“We’re both pretty effective at catching poachers,” Hayes said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "James Hayes examines the damage on a car he suspects was involved in a hit-and-run. Budget cuts in local law enforcement has led to some Fish and Wildlife troopers handling more general law enforcement.", "fid": "117704", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201505/2015-04-03_Hayes-Jeep.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix Photo/Tony Schick"}]]Bean and Hayes are better together, but teaming up 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.

In rural Oregon, the presence of local law enforcement has diminished along with federal payments to timber-dependent counties. That means there are times when state fish and wildlife troopers are also the only on-the-ground police.

On a single weekend, Bean and Hayes handled arsons, domestic violence, DUIs, hit-and-runs and burglaries. Bean said residents will call his cell phone instead of 911.

Those pull them from time-consuming wildlife cases.

“A lot of these wildlife cases take lots of hours, just sitting in the desert, looking for our suspects,” Bean said. “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 ranks has contributed to dissension among current and former wildlife officers.

A group launched an online petition to overturn the current administration. The officers' union investigated Deputy Chief Mike Cenci and sought intervention by legislators and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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.

“When our administration prioritizes shellfish above everything else, something’s got to 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 nearly 90 percent of its 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 heads the agency’s marine division.

“But I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve got a multimillion-dollar commercial industry rife with complexity and high potential for abuse occurring at the same time.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Oregon fish and wildlife police seized several antler sets in the course of investigating suspected poacher Gene Parsons and others last January. ", "fid": "117705", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201505/OSP_Trophy-Pile.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Oregon State Police"}]]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, accusing him of unlawful take of mule deer.

“That guy – one guy – killed a tremendous amount of deer,” Bean said.

Using a search warrant, Bean and Hayes seized nearly 20 antler sets, along with deer meat, firearms and controlled substances. Parsons has been charged with 15 counts of violating state wildlife laws.

Parsons was indicted but has yet to stand trial. He didn’t responded to requests for an interview.

“He’d shoot five to six deer a night,” Bean said. “And he’d cut the antlers off. With a chainsaw. And bring them home, and, as far as we could tell, sell the antlers.”

Where poachers sell remains 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 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 incredibly 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?’”

Vandivert said that in the course of a 19-month undercover operation, 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 lone prosecutor in Lake County, Oregon, who often receives cases from Bean and Hayes. Hayes said 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.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Troopers from Bend and La Pine wait outside the property of an antler dealer in Central Oregon. They need his help to track down some stolen antlers and connect suspected poachers to antler sales. ", "fid": "117706", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201505/2015-04-03_Troopers-Lake-County.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix Photo/Tony Schick"}]]On The Hunt

As the sun set on a windy day in Lake County, Hayes stopped his truck beside the antler dealer’s gate.

Bean pulled up minutes later in a cloud of dust, along with troopers from Bend and John Day – cities in Oregon’s high desert – who are also tracking sales from poaching suspects.

Hayes rolled down his window: “He’s not home.”

“Did you see any activity?” Bean asked.

“It’s padlocked,” Hayes said. “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 had no officers to send.

They waited outside the property for several tense minutes before the dealer returned a call to Trooper Travis Ring from Bend.

Ring relayed the conversation: “I said, ‘I’m trying to run down some stolen horns.’ 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.