Guilty plea in trophy elk-poaching case
Karthaus , Pa. — A Bellefonte man has been sentenced to spend up to 18 months in jail and pay more than $20,000 in fines and costs after pleading guilty Wednesday to poaching three bull elk, one of them among the largest on record in Pennsylvania.
Frank Gordo Buchanan Jr., 25, pleaded guilty Wednesday to three counts of unlawful taking of big game, and one count each of unlawful taking of game, unlawful use of a vehicle to take game, and unlawful use of an artificial light to take game.
As part of the plea agreement accepted by Magisterial District Judge Jerome M. Nevling, of Kylertown, Buchanan will spend three to 18 months in the Clearfield County Jail and pay $9,550 in fines. Additionally, he is responsible for paying $11,500 in replacement costs for the poached elk, two of which are classified as trophy-class animals.
Two other men charged in the incident waived their rights to preliminary hearings on charges, sending their cases to county court. If they are convicted of unlawful taking of big game, they, too, would be required to contribute to replacement costs.
The charges against Buchanan stem from two nights of poaching in the same area of Karthaus Township, Clearfield County, in September. Buchanan had admitted to shooting all three elk.
The largest of the three bulls had a 10- by 9-point non-typical rack that initially was measured at 432 7/8 inches, based on standards set forth by the Boone & Crockett big-game scoring program. At that score, and if the bull had been legally harvested, it would rank as Pennsylvania’s third-largest bull elk ever.
The other two illegally killed bulls included a 5- by 7-point bull measuring 243 1/8 inches and a 4- by 5-point bull measuring 178 3/8 inches.
Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough spoke to the severity of the charges filed in the case. Hough said he is pleased the case against Buchanan was speedily resolved, and acknowledged the penalty is justified.
“Elk are an extremely important resource in Pennsylvania,” Hough said. “People travel hundreds of miles just to visit the elk range and be able to witness their majesty and the marvel of the bugling season, and those people support a lot of local businesses there. It’s no different with elk hunters. Some apply each year for a chance at an elk license, and those who are lucky enough to get one also create an economic boon for many northcentral Pennsylvania towns. In fact, the hunter who paid $41,000 for the license auctioned off by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – a sum that will be used in its entirety to fund conservation efforts in Pennsylvania – was hunting the very record-book elk that was poached.
“That, right there, shows you the value of Pennsylvania elk, and reinforces the logic that the penalties for killing one illegally need to be appropriately stiff,” he said.
The first of the illegally killed bulls – the 4-by-5 – was discovered Sept. 9 by a resident nearby. The antlers had been removed, but most of the carcass was left to lay there.
Wildlife Conservation Officer Mark Gritzer initiated an investigation and extracted a 7 mm bullet from the elk’s shoulder, according to court documents filed with Nevling.
On Sept. 15, Gritzer, working night patrol, returned to the area where the bull was killed. At about 9 p.m., he parked in an area overlooking a reclaimed strip mine where multiple elk could be heard bugling. Within 15 minutes, he saw a pickup approach. Its occupants appeared to be spotlighting recreationally, but, suspiciously, the driver would turn off the headlights each time the pickup stopped, the documents indicate.
At about 9:45 p.m., a single gunshot erupted from the area of the pickup.
Gritzer activated the emergency lights on his patrol vehicle, and drove to the location where the pickup was sitting parked with its headlights off.
When Gritzer’s backup, WCO Dave Stewart, arrived at the scene, he found a 7 mm rifle lying on the ground nearby. Not only was the rifle consistent with the caliber used to kill the 4-by-5 bull on Sept. 9, a handsaw caked with elk hair and tissue also was found in the pickup, according to court documents.
Buchanan admitted to shooting at a large bull elk, and two other men in the vehicle – Jeffrey Scott Bickle, 46, of Bellefonte, and Cody Allen Lyons, 20, of Milesburg – were arrested alongside Buchanan.
Because a fog had moved in, the officers decided to wait to try to find the elk. Instead, they accompanied Buchanan, Lyons and Bickle to the state police barracks in Woodland for fingerprinting, at which time Buchanan admitted to killing 4-by-5 bull on Sept. 9, court documents state.
At 2 a.m., he led Gritzer and Stewart to a trailer home in Milesburg, where he retrieved a sawed-off set of antlers that perfectly matched the skull plate on the poached bull, according to the documents.
At 7:30 a.m., Gritzer and Stewart returned to the arrest scene to search for the larger bull at which Buchanan admitting shooting, the documents state. They quickly found the 10-by-9, which had been shot in the neck with a 7 mm. And within sight, about 350 yards away, the 5-by-7 lay dead.
Further investigation indicated the men had killed the 5-by-7 at about 8:15 that night and left the area to go to the town of Snow Shoe and get a chainsaw to remove the antlers,
Buchanan, at that time, admitted to killing the third bull, as well, and told the officers he had intended to sell the antlers on eBay, court documents state.
Lyons is charged in the Sept. 8 and Sept. 15 incidents. Bickle is charged only in relation to the two bulls killed on Sept. 15.
Lyons faces three counts each of unlawful taking of big game; unlawful use of a vehicle to take game; unlawful presence of a loaded firearm in a vehicle; and unlawful use of artificial light to take game ; as well as one count of unlawful taking of game. Bickle faces two counts each of unlawful taking of big game; unlawful use of a vehicle to take game; unlawful presence of a loaded firearm in a vehicle; and unlawful use of artificial light to take game; as well as one count of vehicle operation to avoid identification.
The men are to appear Nov. 19 in Clearfield County court for their formal arraignment on charges.