It was just about midnight on Friday when Warden Ben Herzfeldt spotted the car eerily rolling north on a desolate Marathon County rural road.
Poachers had worked this area before during Herzfeldt’s four years on the Marathon County beat. He had seen this road-shoulder-car-creep maneuver plenty of times.
It had been about 24 hours since the state law banning shining from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. took effect. That law runs from September 15 to December 31.
“I figured there would be problems sooner or later. So I was watching,” Herzfeldt said. He didn’t have to wait long. “I could see the spotlight coming out of the vehicle on the west side of the road.”
And they weren’t looking for a nice picnic spot.
Herzfeldt caught up to the car for an official stop. But the car didn’t stop right away. Instead it kept moving very slowly for about 100 yards. “That’s when people are trying to conceal some type of items – whether it is drugs or firearms,” he said of the common reason for a slow stop.
Inside the car were four occupants, ages 17 – 20, from Langlade County. They were pretty cooperative. “They were out just having a good time,” one of the four told Herzfeldt. He asked them if there was a gun and they said no.
“I first observed the ammunition, then the gun case and then a loaded gun underneath some clothing,” Herzfeldt said of what he found during the official vehicle search incident to arrest for illegal shining. The four said they did not shoot anything yet that night, and Herzfeldt’s investigation supported that. The case is pending with the Marathon County District Attorney, who will decide if and what charges to file against the individuals.
“September generally is when our hunting seasons kick off in Wisconsin – and this is the time poaching problems start,” he said.
Bucks shot for velvet antlers, bodies left in field
About the same time, Herzfeldt’s colleague – Warden Paul Leezer – responded to a possible deer poaching incident in central Marathon County. A local citizen saw a vehicle parked on the road shining a light into the adjacent field, and a short time later the citizens heard two gunshots from that area. The citizen followed the suspect vehicle while calling the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department.
When Leezer got to the scene, the sheriff’s department had stopped two males who also had a loaded .22-caliber rifle in the car. Leezer then began his investigation.
Leezer’s investigation revealed they did shine and shoot at a buck in the field that night. Before he was done with his investigation, he also learned “two weeks prior, these two subjects, along with some other individuals, were believed to be involved in shining and shooting at approximately eight deer – killing four. Three of the four bucks killed had velvet antlers,” Leezer said. “The investigation revealed evidence the bucks’ heads were cut off and the bodies were left.”
A follow-up investigation in this Marathon County incident also is under way. Charges are pending.
Reasons behind the season, safety a big issue
Both wardens say this is about the time poaching starts to pick up in their patrol areas – but it is not limited to central Wisconsin. “It definitely goes on statewide,” Herzfeldt said. “It is more prevalent in Marathon County and it is a pretty heavy workload for us. We do deal with a lot of nighttime poaching complaints.”
The majority of the people Herzfeldt has caught have ranged from age18 to 25 while Leezer says it is not limited to one age range. Herzfeldt added: “It is not uncommon, though, to catch older people.”
The reasons vary why people shine and ultimately poach. Leezer says his ongoing investigation could be considered thrill kill since the shooters were after the velvet antlers and the deer bodies were left in the field.
Warden Supervisor Randy Falstad, who covers Marathon, Portage and Wood counties, agrees with Leezer and Herzfeldt that some, but not all, of the poaching activities are thrill kills. Why? Because some of these animals are being taken and eaten and others are being killed for antlers.
“Many of the younger people are involved because of the adventure of it. They know they could get caught but will try to get away with it anyway,” Falstad said. “Others have an obsession with deer antlers and will do what it takes to add to their collection.”
Herzfeldt added some poachers will try to cover the kill as a legal gun or archery killing and attach a tag.
And then there is the safety issue.
“These guys are shooting at deer in the dark and can’t see what is behind it,” Leezer said, noting there are farmhouses, buildings, barns and livestock scattered in these rural areas also occupied by deer. “There is a real safety issue here.”
Unethical poaching collides with legal shining
Shining is legal during specific evening hours. For a lot of families, shining to observe deer is a recreational activity.
“You’ll see families out there. They enjoy looking at the deer. You can shine legally from dusk until 10 p.m. But you cannot have a firearm in your possession,” Falstad said. “Some of the shiners love to see the animals and others are hunters who tend to be scouting.”
But the scenario changes dramatically when the shining leads to an illegal shooting.
“Illegal shining and shooting goes against the fair chase principal we have. And we have hundreds and thousands of men and women doing things legally,” Herzfeldt said. “I stress that in my hunter safety class to try and do thing the right way. There are those who shoot the deer off the road and others who catch too many fish. It is not fair to do these things illegally.”
Falstad agreed, adding the poacher in these situations has a heads up on the legal hunter. “The deer just freeze in those lights and they become a very easy target,” he said. “However, I always question how people can be proud of taking an animal in that manner.
“And, they also seem to forget the chance they are taking as the penalties usually involve about $2,000 in fines, the loss of the weapons and a three-year mandatory loss of all hunting and fishing privileges,” Falstad said.
Falstad says “excellent cases,” such as the two made by Herzfeldt and Leezer, are not likely unless a landowner wants to get involved and call. And in Leezer's situation, the poachers had already killed four bucks that would not be there for the legal hunters during the season.
The three wardens say help from area residents always is appreciated.
“The citizens are definitely our partners in this,” Leezer said. “There are only a few of us wardens, and most of the good cases are based upon citizens alerting us and calling the hotline.”
-- JMH, Bureau of Law Enforcement