Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Pa. poaching fines may go way up

Pittsburgh – While hunters lament the low number of white-tailed
deer in some parts of Pennsylvania, poachers are having a field
day.

Laws without teeth and archaic fines have made the state –
second only to Texas in the number of licenses sold – an easy mark
for those who thrill kill, hoard antlers or supply animal parts to
black marketeers.

“You could poach 100 deer and be convicted and you’d never spend
a day in jail because there’s no provision for incarceration in the
Game Code,” said Rich Palmer, director of wildlife protection for
the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the state’s wildlife management
and enforcement authority.

“Game violations are summary offenses, the same as littering or
running a stop sign. Fines aren’t even equitable to 1913, when it
was $100 for unlawfully taking a deer.”

Pennsylvania game laws and penalties are set by the Pennsylvania
Legislature and approved by the governor. Despite penalties that
Palmer said are weak compared with those of other states, the Game
Commission has not forcefully sought stiffer fines from
lawmakers.                         

But that may be about to change. With mounting grassroots
support that includes the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s
Clubs, Palmer will make the case for an overhaul of state game laws
Feb. 7, when he appears before the House Game and Fisheries
Committee in Harrisburg.

It’s the first time a package of this magnitude has been
proposed since recodification of game laws in the 1980s, and the
first step in convincing legislators that offenses should be
misdemeanors – in some cases, felonies – with the prospect of
imprisonment and stiffer fines.

Committee chairman Rep. Ed Staback, D-Lackawanna and Wayne
counties, has drafted a proposal that reflects those changes. An
aide to the representative said they expected the bill to be
introduced well in advance of the Feb. 7 hearing.

“We’ll include new offenses for multiple violations,” said
Staback, in a prepared statement, “and increase the pool of money
within the game fund to pay out rewards for information.”

Melody Zullinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania
Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, also will testify Feb. 7, along
with representatives of the Humane Society of the United
States.

“What we’ve been seeing for years in Pennsylvania is repeat
offenders,” Zullinger said. “No jail time has made poaching a
revolving door.”

A case in point is that of Richard Stoy, a Blair County man
convicted of 50 game law violations over 11 years, including 40 for
the unlawful taking of trophy bucks.

“He had his hunting license revoked to the year 2060 and kept on
poaching and getting arrested,” said Palmer. “He only stopped
poaching when he was incarcerated for other crimes having nothing
to do with hunting. Otherwise, we could never have thrown him in
jail. Of the $14,900 in fines he owed, less than half has ever been
paid.”

Laws are lax and each wildlife conservation officer in the
agency’s 136 field districts has to patrol an average of 375 square
miles. When poachers are caught and hauled to court, they often get
off easy for all but the most egregious offenses, Palmer said. In
2004, state lawmakers gave district justices wider latitude in
assigning penalties in hopes they would begin imposing at least a
small fine in cases they might have otherwise dismissed.

“And that’s exactly what happens,” Palmer said. “Guys usually
get the low-end fine, which is $300.”

Some people outside the hunting community may be indifferent to
the state’s relaxed penalties, harboring what Palmer calls an “it’s
just an animal” mindset. But wild game is a constitutionally
protected resource, he said, and illegally taking them is
tantamount to acts of grand larceny or theft from the citizens of
Pennsylvania.

Other states seem to recognize that, given their laws and
penalty structures.

“If you kill a black bear in closed season in West Virginia, the
first offense is $5,000 and 30 days in jail,” Palmer said. “Here,
the range is $500 to $1,500 and no jail time. Poaching a deer at
night in Maryland is $2,000 to $4,000 and up to a year in jail.
Here, the maximum is $800, although it’s seldom given, and no jail
time.”

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states not included in the
Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, in which member states share
information about game law violators and deny licenses to those
whose hunting privileges have been revoked by any state in the
compact.

New Jersey is the only state bordering Pennsylvania that isn’t a
member. Palmer said the commission has asked the Legislature to
seek the commonwealth’s admission to the compact, but Harrisburg
has so far rebuffed initiatives that would put Pennsylvania in the
loop.

In too many cases, said Palmer, fines aren’t severe enough to
discourage violations.

“Our penalties aren’t deterrents,” said Palmer. “They’re not
working.”

In the Game Commission’s license year that ended in June 2007,
more than 16,000 violations were encountered by wildlife
conservation officers, resulting in 7,123 successful prosecutions.
(Often, violators of minor infractions get off with warnings).
Almost 43 percent of total violations related to unlawful taking of
wildlife, such as hunting out of season, exceeding bag limits and
“jack lighting,” a practice that originated with pioneers who
cruised riverbanks for deer at night with pitch pine torches on the
bows of their canoes.

Then, the motive was to gather food. Today it often is greed, an
obsession with antlers or a warped sense of status, Palmer
said.

Poaching is big business for some, and the cost of doing it in
Pennsylvania is low.

“One of the reasons people come here to poach is they know they
won’t be thrown in jail,” said Staback. “They can pay a low fine
and poach again.”

Several years ago, a New Jersey man was busted for selling 90
black bear gallbladders to an undercover game officer in
Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Most of the organs were not taken
from bears killed here. Under Pennsylvania law, he could not have
been jailed for possession of so many animal parts. He was subject
to imprisonment, however, on a federal felony charge of crossing
state lines to deal in contraband. He settled out of court.

Bear parts, including skulls and paws, are coveted in a
billion-dollar global underground that caters to restaurants and
practitioners of traditional Asian medicine. Gallbladders with a
$150 street value in Pennsylvania have more value than heroin or
gold in the end market, Palmer said.

“Venison is an even hotter commodity. Aside from the guy selling
meat out of his basement, you’ve got guys selling it to high-end
restaurants in D.C. and New York, which will pay $25 a pound for
venison loins. If you get 30 pounds of prime meat out of the
average deer, you’ll make $300 on one animal.”

But profit isn’t every poacher’s motive. Some are hoarders,
which Palmer called “the creepiest.”

“They’re totally obsessed,” he said, “and would shoot a trophy
buck in the middle of suburbia with kids on swing sets and a dozen
witnesses around.”

One of the state’s more infamous hoarding cases involved a
Fulton County man found with 100 pounds of antlers and 54 turkey
beards in his home, plus a diary that detailed the killing of more
than 300 animals, beginning when he was just 13 years old.

“That was the spooky part. Someone ought to do an analysis
between serial poachers and serial killers,” said Palmer. “They’d
probably find a whole bunch of analogies, like keeping diaries of
their crimes and trophies of their victims.”

Palmer said proposed new penalties for poaching would impact the
most egregious violators as well as less flagrant and accidental
poachers. And surprisingly, he said, it isn’t only a backwoods
problem.

“If you think poaching is just a rural thing where someone on
the low end of the socio-economic scale needs meat for the freezer,
nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Cities and
suburbs have become havens for trophy bucks and there are people
taking them illegally. These (guys) aren’t Robin Hoods. They’re bad
guys.”

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