Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Centre men charged in elk poachings

Karthaus, Pa. — Three Centre County men have been charged in the recent poaching of three bull elk, including the third largest ever killed in Pennsylvania, in Karthaus, Clearfield County, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Jeffrey Bickle, 48, a contractor from Bellefonte, and his employees, Frank Buchanan Jr., 25, of Bellefonte, and Cody Lyons, 20, of Milesburg, are accused of jacklighting two trophy-size elk Sept. 15. Buchanan and Lyons also are accused of jacklighting a near-trophy bull Sept. 8.

Buchanan, the confessed trigger-man in all three kills, told law enforcement officers that he intended to sell the antlers on the Internet through eBay, said Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau. 

One bull – one of the three largest on record in Pennsylvania – was nine by 10 points and had a Boone & Crockett green score of 5327⁄8 inches, said the commission’s northcentral regional law enforcement director Rick Macklem. “What a beautiful animal that was.”

The other was five by seven points and had a Boone & Crockett green score of 2431⁄28 inches.

Bickle, Buchanan and Lyons face multiple counts on a variety of charges related to shooting big game from a vehicle and using spotlights. A preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 22.

“They could face some hefty fines, and we intend to ask for the maximum,” said Macklem. “We’re also seeking restitution for the replacement value of the elk, which is $5,000 for the two biggest ones.” 

The elk were killed at the beginning of the rut, which is a popular time for tourists who travel to hear them bugling, and just weeks before hunters head to the Pennsylvania Wilds for a shot at the elk of a lifetime, Macklem said. Of the 26,480 hunters who applied for an elk tag, just 108 were awarded, including 27 for bull elk.

Lau said there were unconfirmed reports the nine by 10-point was being scouted by a man who paid $41,000 for a special elk conservation tag auctioned by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as a fund-raiser for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The commission was alerted Sept. 9 to the first poaching incident, when someone reported finding a carcass with its antlers removed, Macklem said. Wildlife conservation officer Mark Gritzer went to the scene, performed a necropsy in the field, removed a tooth to “age” the elk at 2 years and 3 months, and extracted a 7 mm bullet from the animal’s left shoulder as evidence, Macklem said.

Gritzer was patrolling the same area Sept. 15 when he spotted suspicious activity around 9:45 p.m. 

“He was looking over a large reclaimed strip-mine field where multiple elk were bugling, when he noticed a vehicle approaching,” Macklem said. “The occupants were participating in recreational spotlighting, which was legal because it was before 11 p.m.”

But events soon took a criminal turn, he said. “The vehicle stopped, the driver turned off his headlights, a passenger turned on a spotlight, and a single shot rang out from the vehicle.”

Gritzer activated his emergency lights and, because the driver attempted to leave the area, conducted a high-risk vehicle stop, ordering the men out of their truck, handcuffing them, and radioing for backup, Macklem said. “Because of the seriousness of the charges, the men were taken to the State Police barracks and finger-printed.”

During questioning, the men confessed to having poached another elk that same night before Gritzer had arrived, Macklem said. “They’d left the scene earlier because their hand saw wasn’t good enough to cut the antlers off, so they went to get a chain saw, which is when our officer pulled into the area to patrol.”

“When they came back with the chain saw, they spotted the second elk – the big boy – and couldn’t resist shooting that one, too.”

Bickle admitted to driving the vehicle, while Lyons held the spotlight and Buchanan killed both elk, Macklem said. 

Buchanan was also the shooter and Lyons was the spotlighter on Sept. 8, but Bickle wasn’t involved, Macklem said.

The men could be sent to jail for their alleged acts, and they could face fines of $3,000 for each of the closed-season violations alone, Macklem said. “On just the one charge, Mr. Bickle’s fine could be $6,000 for the two elk killed Sept. 15. The two younger men could be looking at $9,000 each because three elk were killed.”

It is possible, though, that the fines will be less because, despite tougher penalties built into the Game Code in 2010, district justices still have broad leeway in sentencing, and poaching cases often result in plea deals. It ultimately is up to the Game Commission to agree to, or nix, any deal offered by defendants in a poaching case.

In addition to their importance to hunters, Pennsylvania elk are a source of state pride, as well as tourism revenue, since they attract visitors from all over the world, especially in fall, when they are bugling. 

“It’s certainly a disappointment for anyone in wildlife conservation when an animal is taken in this way,” says Carla Whelan, operations manager at the Elk Country Alliance, which runs the visitors center in Benezette. 

“To lose large bulls to poaching is particularly disappointing.”

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