Iowa's Deer Poachers: Stealing The Trophies

The Hawkeye State's whitetails and the humans who hunt them are both feeling the impact of this increasingly prevalent crime. (January 2006)

Interest in trophy antlers is helping to drive a two-decade increase in deer poaching in Iowa. The reasons behind this type of lawlessness have changed, say IDNR officials, and it seems as if it's increasingly taking place in areas in which poachers once hesitated to commit their depredations.
Photo by Duncan Dobie

"Quick! Duck behind a tree!" Dave yelled as a beam of light swung toward us. Peering from behind a big oak, I watched the light sweep across the field. It came from a battered pickup moving slowly along Otis Road just outside Cedar Rapids.

Dave and I were on an evening hike, returning to our car just after dark. The poacher had no clue that we were in the woods. Fortunately, no deer were in the field, and no shots came our way.

The incident happened 20 years ago. The poacher was well known among city police and local conservation officers. His background included a smattering of arrests for various serious crimes. They knew he was using a spotlight and rifle to kill deer. They also knew that he was shooting any deer he could and selling them for $50 apiece to a tavern that used the meat to make "beef stew." Officers were never in the right place at the right time to catch him poaching, but he was eventually arrested for firing a shotgun during a dispute in a tavern's parking lot and spent several years in prison.

Not long after that incident, Iowa Game & Fish asked me to write an article regarding the impact of poaching on legal deer hunting. More recently, the editor asked me to write again on deer poaching in Iowa and, more specifically, about the impact of poaching on trophy white-tailed deer.

POACHERS ARE STEALING IOWA'S TROPHY BUCKS

According to several conservation officers and wildlife biologists of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the poaching of white-tailed deer continues in the Hawkeye State, with unfortunate effects on both the deer-hunting success of law-abiding hunters and the recruitment of trophy bucks into the Iowa deer herd.

When I observed the poacher I described in the opening of this article, deer in Iowa were relatively scarce. Hunting was restricted to specific zones, and hunting regulations allowed sportsmen to annually take one deer by means of a firearm and one deer by means of archery gear. Back then, Iowa's statewide annual legal harvest of whitetails was about 20,000 animals. Just shooting a deer was a challenge, and it simply wasn't legal to harvest much deer meat. Back in those days, poachers' common motivations were to put extra meat in their freezers or make a few bucks selling the meat.

But times have changed. Iowa's deer herd currently stands at some 525,000 animals -- a record level. As a result, complaints arising from deer damage, such as auto collisions, and browsing of landscapes, orchards and crops, have grown, and the state has reacted by greatly liberalizing seasons and bag limits, instituting many special-regulation hunts annually, and reducing the cost of some deer-hunting tags. All these efforts have driven Iowa's annual legal deer harvest to about 10 times what it was in the early 1980s.

What's also grown tremendously is interest in trophy deer. Among many hunters' circles of friends and sportsmen, the taking of record-book bucks is a focus of intense interest. But that interest appears to be equally strong in poaching circles. As a result, experts agree, deer poaching in Iowa over the last 20 years has increased, the reasons for it have changed, and it's taking place in areas in which the perpetrators once hesitated to commit the crime.

WHY PEOPLE POACH

According to IDNR deer biologist Willie Suchy, the motivations of poachers have shifted from subsistence to bragging rights. "The emphasis is on trophy deer," he said. "More people probably poached years ago just to get a deer. Hunting opportunities were more limited, and so getting a deer was harder.

"Now, there are all sorts of opportunities to legally take a deer, but many of those opportunities are for antlerless animals. It's relatively easy for any legal hunter to fill a freezer. Now, poachers go after bucks."

Their image has changed as well. The seedy character spotlighting deer after dark has faded, having been succeeded by what is today a far more diverse group of miscreants. A few are probably still after venison; now, however, most poaching centers on money and ego.

"I think (egos) are the biggest reason people violate the law," Suchy said. "They see a big deer and bend the laws to take it."

Linn County conservation officer Aric Sloterdyk agrees. "A lot of people want to show off a big buck. The temptation is great," he observed. "In my territory, poaching peaks the weekend before the first shotgun season opens. Some people will go out and poach a big buck just before the season opens, keep it hidden for a few days, and then put their tag on it and brag as soon as the season opens," he explained.

Seemingly legitimate hunters also poach in other ways. Some illegally shoot a deer with a shogun or rifle, and then put their archery tag on it, making it "legal." Some buy a deer tag for their wife or a non-hunting friend and fill that tag themselves by shooting another buck. Others shoot deer during the legal season, but before or after shooting hours. Some of these poachers justify bending the law by contending they are reducing so-called "deer problems."

Chief Lowell Joslin of the IDNR's Conservation Law Enforcement division is certain that another ego-related reason drives some people to poach. "They do it to see if they can get by with it -- it becomes a game for them. And every time we catch that certain poacher, they become a little smarter, and try harder to keep from getting caught again. For some people, it is part of their way of life: They get caught at times, but keep on poaching."

Although many believe that ego is the primary motivation for the modern Hawkeye poacher, money is frequently acknowledged to be a key factor -- but it's not likely that many poachers are selling venison. Gather a bunch of deer hunters together to discuss trophy-deer hunting, and someone in the group will soon claim that poachers kill big Iowa deer to sell racks for thousands of dollars to wealthy out-of-state buyers.

These purported rich people, it's claimed by some, have a taxidermist mount the Iowa rack on the cape of a deer killed elsewhere, and then brag to their friends about the record-book bucks they display on the walls of their dens, lodges and living rooms.

Why wo

uldn't this happen? After all, Iowa consistently ranks first in the annual listings of big bucks in the Boone and Crockett Club record books, and, indeed, anyone who wishes to kill a record-book buck should hunt in Iowa. But according to Suchy, the chances of making much money by selling the rack of a white-tailed deer are actually pretty small. Big whitetail racks can draw big money, but ordinary-sized whitetail antlers aren't worth much. Still, despite the risk of getting caught and paying a hefty fine, the activity continues.

"The biggest racks I've ever seen have sold for no more than $25,000," said Chief Joslin. "Only one out of thousands of bucks (antlers) is big enough to bring a five-figure sale, and that's not a lot of money."

The temptation of making money by selling a big rack can cause some strange behavior. "We actually had a deer stolen from the back of a locker in Tipton last year and the head cut off," said Craig Jackson, supervisor for the IDNR's Southeast District Conservation Law Enforcement division. "No matter how little the poacher gets for antlers, it seems it's enough for them to continue to do it."

Mark Sedlmayr, the IDNR's Southwest District Law Enforcement division supervisor, suggested another reason for poaching. "It's the thrill of the kill," he observed. "Some just kill for the fun of it. There seems to be a lot of that going on in my district. I also think some people are addicted to the antlers. They just have to have a set of antlers, regardless of the size. They want that animal so someone else won't get it."

And some people poach because they find themselves desperate enough to take the law into their own hands. As deer densities increase, the hungry animals gobble farm crops, tree nursery stock and urban gardens and landscapes. Thus, when landowners who've appealed to the IDNR for help feel that the help they finally get is too little, too late, some decide to deal with it themselves.

"This is happening in Cedar Rapids, even in midsummer," reported IDNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. "I've checked dead deer in city limits and found some of them gut-shot by a .22 rifle bullet. I presume that landowners frustrated by deer damage shoot the deer, which wanders off to someone else's property to die."

One Iowa tree farmer told me that deer are destroying his woodlands -- so he carries a rifle whenever he's on his land, and drops any deer he sees.

No matter what motivates poachers, any buck killed illegally is a stolen animal that won't end up legally tagged.

IOWA'S POACHING HOTSPOTS

Poaching appears to take place all over the Hawkeye State; IDNR biologist Suchy certainly believes that it's fairly widespread across Iowa.


One Iowa tree farmer told me that deer are destroying his woodlands -- so he carries a rifle whenever he's on his land, and drops any deer he sees.
 

"I think it may be more common in rural counties," he remarked, "because the risk of getting caught may be lower, but it also happens in urban areas. Iowa's cities are essentially deer refuges, and many bucks grow to massive size there. Poachers are well aware of this and are active in urban areas."

Sloterdyk agrees. "Poachers go where the big deer are," he said. "Sometimes, they even go where the rumors of big deer are. Every year I hear of people sighting a monstrous buck somewhere. Sometimes these sighting are legitimate, and there really is a big buck in the area; sometimes they're just a rumor. But either way, lots of people hear about a giant buck and go after him."

Sloterdyk listens closely to the tales of record-book deer and spends time watching for poachers in areas in which these bucks are reported to live. "Part of my job as a conservation officer is to figure out where poaching is most likely to take place and patrol in those areas," he explained. "I listen to the grapevine to get information. Surprisingly, often the friends or relatives of a poacher call me to tip me off about the illegal activity."

Also, Chief Joslin pointed out, every county in Iowa contains remote areas possessing decent deer habitat. Local officers get to know these areas, he says, which become likely spots for encountering poachers. Officer Jackson suggests that southern Iowa may have more poachers than does any other region of the state.

Steve Dermand, who administers the Turn In Poachers hotline -- 1-800-532-2020 -- has a good feel for poaching hotspots. "Location of poaching has much to do with the proximity of good (deer) habitat and a large human population," he said. "Generally, officers find more poaching in a place like a river corridor that's near a big city. The Cedar River and (the city of) Cedar Rapids in Linn County is a good example."

Poachers are even active in northwest Iowa, the part of the state that has the lowest deer density. "We have deer poaching in northern Iowa," said Rich Jordet, the IDNR Law Enforcement division's Northwest District supervisor. "Officers Steve Jauron and Stacey Sisco made an excellent case last year with three large bucks being shot with rifles within the Sioux City limits. One of those deer was so large that it qualified for the $20,000 liquidated damages fine." (Liquidated damages are the dollar values, as deemed optimal for the public interest, applied to game animals.)

And poaching in urban areas seems to be increasing, perhaps because many cities essentially function as deer refuges. Some cities, like Cedar Rapids, ban all forms of hunting. Others, like neighboring Marion, permit bowhunting. However, most legal urban hunts are designed to reduce deer population densities and thus usually target antlerless animals. Thus, Iowa's cities have become refuges for massive bucks, and poachers will go wherever those big bucks live.

Chief Joslin cites examples of a huge buck illegally killed near Terrace Hill, the governor's mansion, in Des Moines. Another was poached near the Des Moines airport. He suspects that similar poaching takes place in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, and other cities.

WHEN POACHERS ARE MOST ACTIVE

Years ago the classic poacher "shining" deer from a pickup truck was most active late at night during the cold months. That's changed, too. Poachers who kill deer to reduce crop, tree and garden damage are active year 'round, even in midsummer. Nonetheless, the majority of poachers are still after antlers.

In general, antler poachers are most active from early fall into late winter. Iowa bucks usually polish antlers in September, begin shedding in late December, with most bucks having dropped their antlers by late March, although a few may wear racks that don't drop until April.

"The main poaching season state-wide seems to be from September through December," Joslin noted, "and some poachers are especially active when officers are busy with another season opener, like the waterfowl season."

Officer Sloterdyk observes a spike in poaching just before the legal shotgun season. But Law Enforcement supervisor Mark Sedlmayr isn't sure that a prime season for poaching actually exists. "Deer seem to be shot from the minute they clean off their racks all the way into April," he said. "We had six deer poached in April 2005 in Ringgold and Clarke counties."

VIOLATIONS BY THE NUMBERS
The Iowa DNR doesn't break down fish and game violations by specific type, but the following chart gives some indication of wildlife law conviction trends:
YearHuntingFishingTrapping
19992,3502,11080
20002,3212,44575
20012,3702,237116
20022,4172,347287
20032,6042,451173
Data courtesy of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Although poaching can take place any hour of the day, Officer Jackson believes that most poaching occurs at dusk. "I think much of the poaching is taking place at dusk, and the shooter picks up the animal later, rather than using a spotlight," he said. "Poachers also may be starting to use night-vision equipment."

HOW HUNTERS CAN REDUCE POACHING

Poachers are thieves, and the IDNR needs the help of all citizens to apprehend them. IDNR executive enforcement officer Steve Dermand urges hunters to go out of their way to obey the law, to hunt ethically and to keep their eyes open for violators.

"We need the help of hunters to catch poachers," he said. "It's very helpful if hunters will program the Turn In Poachers hotline and (local) conservation officer's phone numbers into their cell phones. That way they can easily call if the spot illegal activity." The name of each Iowa county's conservation officer and his or her phone number, as well as the TIP hotline number -- again, 1-800-532-2020 -- will be found in every regulation booklet.

Dermand credits the TIP program for helping to reduce poaching in Iowa. "TIP is actually a private nonprofit organization," he explained. "It has its own board of directors that's made up of representatives of various conservation groups, like the Iowa Wildlife Federation. It's funded by contributions and memberships. Actually, anyone interested in learning more about wildlife law enforcement might want to join TIP and receive their newsletter." (Subscriptions for the TIP newsletter can be purchased for $20 from Jerry Dowell, TIP of Iowa Inc., PO Box 703, Pella, IA 50219. Contributions are tax deductible.)

TIP provides rewards to callers who report violations. "A typical reward will be in the $250 range for a deer conviction," Dermand said. "Some people are money-motivated, and the reward encourages them to call. However, many hunters simply want the poacher caught and refuse the reward."

Getting convicted of poaching a deer is expensive. A judge usually sets the exact fine. The basic fine is $150, and liquidated damage costs are frequently added to the fine. These costs range from $1,500 for a doe, to more than $5,000 for a large buck. In fact, liquidated damages can reach $20,000 for a record-book buck. Poachers are often caught with more than one deer, so fines can total thousands of dollars. The IDNR also sometimes confiscates the weapon and other hunting gear, which is usually used as evidence.

Iowa, arguably, is North America's center for hunting record-book whitetails -- and poachers are stealing those trophy bucks. IDNR law enforcement officers need the help of all hunters to apprehend them.

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