With the tragic killing of WCO David Grove of Franklin County still in our memories we face the fact that the problem of poaching, especially the illegal killing of deer, has taken on new boundaries.
During last summer, the Game Commission passed new and much stiffer fines for poaching. My colleague and friend, Walt Young, outlined all of this in his column a couple weeks ago. One consequence of that is that poachers are much more desperate now than ever before not to be caught. I don't know whether that had anything to do with Grove's assasination or not but it is something to be considered.
Let's get this straight: poaching of deer these days really has little if anything to do with some poor person trying to "feed his family." This was the thinking a generation ago when most everyone lived on farms and picking off a deer for food in the off-season was not thought of as being a very big deal. But the attitude and situations has evolved into something much different these days.
Deer are scarce in the state now, at least on public lands. One result of the changed deer hunting rules of the last decade or so is that now, bucks have larger antlers. Most of the poachers on the prowl these days are shooting deer, cutting off the head for trophy value and letting the carcass lie to rot. Often, poachers are simply thrill-seekers who shoot deer simply for the "high" they get for killing something. It's despicable and the Game Commissioners, realizing that the dynamic of deer-poaching has changed, that it is no longer something to just wink at, legislated new and higher fines and jail time for poachers.
Many are fearful, however, that these strict new penalties will lead to more desperate attempts to get away when caught. It's too early to tell if this is a valid concern as yet but one has to wonder.
Twenty one years ago, I was the victim of a victim-mistaken-for-game shooting. Because my name was known in the field, the case got a lot of attention. Well-meaning folks decided to push for higher penalties for those who shoot other hunters while hunting. But, in my opinion, these folks swung the pendulum way too far in that direction, suggesting that punishments range from hunters losing everything they possess along with hefty, bank-breaking fines.
I opposed that suggested resolution for such stiff penalties. At the time, the penalties were less for shooting another human being than for shooting an animal illegally and needed to be upgraded. But for a hunter, faced with the loss of everything he owns, his family being dispossesed out of their home, jail time etc. was, to use a common phrase, overkill. At least, that was my opinion.
The result would have been victims of accidental shootings left to lie in the woods while a panicked shooter fled. The two men who shot me at least did come to my aid and helprd me out of the woods. I've often thought of what the result could have been, had they been overwhelmed and panicked by the prospect of the punishment for owning up to what they did.
I am not suggesting there be no consequences for illegal killing of animals. I just think the penalties should be more in line with the gravity of the crime rather than so far out in left field that a poacher would kill a WCO rather than be caught.
It's a complicated matter and opinions differ greatly, mostly stemming from our own personal experience. From dismissing deer poaching as nothing important to confiscating a poacher's property and sending him to prison, suggestions vary.
Frankly, I was glad to see fines and punishments increased this last summer but we do have to realize that our WCO's are in danger when they are out there on night patrol.
I have no sympathy or mercy for poachers. They are stealing what belongs to you and me. I believe there was an element of poaching involved in both my son's and my own shootings during a turkey season. In both cases - which happened separately in different states- neither of us had made any calls or done anything at all to give another hunter the idea there was a gobbler around. It seemed as though the shooters involved simply were "taking their chances" when they shot. If what they killed would be a hen, well, they might either let it lay or try to sneak it out of the woods. It was despicable.
But I often wonder what the reaction would have been in both those cases, had the shooters been facing impossible fines and possible lengthy prison sentences should they be found out. It's just something to think about.
In the late night hours, when a person has just shot a deer illegally in a field somewhere and is suddenly confronted by a Conservation Officer, the impulse to shoot and get away may be overwhelming. We'll see, I guess.
Some say I'm just borrowing trouble. I sincerely hope that they are right.