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Poaching Restitution: Is It Enough?

Do Convicted Poachers Pay Enough to Deter Others?

All of us get frustrated when we hear about poachers violating the public trust and illegally taking the wildlife that we pay to see flourish and that every citizen has the right to enjoy. Law-abiding hunters that wait years to hunt that species grit their teeth as they see trophy animals wantonly wasted. For loss of this public resource, courts in 42 states have restitution in addition to other available measures such as fines, community service, forfeiture of equipment and animal, in rare cases imprisonment or even felony charges. Sometimes, the restitution is pursued as part of a separate civil case.

Restitution Varies a Lot State to State.

If you poach a cow elk in Colorado, there is no restitution, though you may have a fine. Next door in Wyoming, restitution on that cow runs $6,000. In Utah, the restitution is only a recommendation and the same cow elk runs $750.

Most states don’t set restitution very high for non-trophy animals but set a steep price if it is a trophy animal. Again, it varies by species and state. Montana figures a buck antelope with less than 4” horns is worth $300, but a trophy buck is $2,000 and a trophy mule deer is $8,000. Poach a trophy bighorn in Oregon and you’re looking at $50,000.

Poach and Pay Program & Survey

The Boone and Crockett Club began the Poach and Pay (PAP) program to assist states in strengthening their restitution programs. There are now at least 21 states that use a measuring system, usually B&C’s, to help determine the proper amount of restitution to require of convicted poachers. In South Dakota, a percentage of the amount goes to the school district in which the poaching occurred. The research arm of PAP, supported by Leupold & Stevens, recently released a study based on surveys and interviews of wildlife officers across the country. In the West, every state participated except Washington and Nevada.

Problems with Prosecution

While the wildlife officers were quick to point out that courts are overwhelmed, the most common frustration they had was with prosecution in the courts:

    • Wildlife crimes and cases often not a priority. The problem in an overburdened court system is that poaching cases share the same courts as domestic abuse, drugs and DUIs. To some judges and juries, shooting an animal out of season seems relatively trivial in comparison.
    • Inconsistency with imposing fines, dismissing, and/or dropping cases. In the absence of national standards, sentences vary by state and by court. Many defendants are defendants allowed to make small monthly payments on restitution, perhaps too small to be sufficiently painful.


  • Courts weak on prosecution. Judges have cultural, traditional or other personal influences, as we all do and sometimes that leads to less of a penalty. Sometimes prosecutors reduce penalties to get more convictions.
  • Lack of knowledge and understanding of fish and game laws by judges and prosecutors – Judges and juries often did not understand point scoring and presumably other things such as how difficult it is to draw a tag or the scarcity of game or the value to the public.


One officer interviewed said that “If it is a judge that is not really into the outdoors or if the judge is a farmer, they will minimize the importance of poaching and they will almost always give them a minimum fine and will let it go at that.”

Other Problems with Prosecution

The second most common theme that was an obstacle to bringing poachers to justice was their own constraints with respect to enforcement staffing and time:

    • Not enough enforcement officers – Wildlife officers frequently have very large territories. That means that there is often little visible presence of law enforcement. Think about it. Does the presence of a squad car have any effect on say, your vehicle speed? It works the same for the illegal taking of wildlife. Picture the scene in the offseason of one member of a poaching ring telling another that the only wildlife officer for 500 square miles is out mowing his lawn on Saturday and not likely to be near the scene of the intended crime.
    • Enforcement officer time constraints – Game wardens have other responsibilities outside of wildlife law enforcement, like search and rescue, enforcing fishing and boating laws as well as general law enforcement


  • Cases can take a long time to develop – Poaching takes place where often there are few if any witnesses and those that do have knowledge may be a family member or buddy, if not an accomplice. Especially in the case of poaching rings, it takes time to get and develop leads and get documentation that will stand up in court.


Restitution Amounts in the West

As mentioned, many states now base restitution at least partially on the number of points or measurements that use the B&C scoring system or Pope and Young or SCI. Here’s a listing of the restitution for selected big game animals in western states that responded to the interview or survey requests.

Now it’s time for you to chime in… what say you on this complex issue; restitution, how much is enough?

About Dave Hoshour

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  1. Fines and/or restitution have never been high enough in my opinion. A high percentage of “poachers” go undetected and those that are caught are generally let off with a slap on the wrist. Occasionally, the good guys are able to put a good case together and throw the book at the offender. It puzzles me as to why somebody who wouldn’t think of shoplifting an item in a retail store is perfectly fine with poaching.

  2. I guess now Washington state doesn’t count as being in the west.
    Good to know Dave.

  3. I don’t think that the penalties are high enough .If ethics, don’t figure in, why would anyone abide by the law if the penalty is less trouble than going the legal route.?

  4. If a poacher were to get caught once in 3 times, it’s a cheap cost of doing business. Example; kill a couple 190 class deer, but caught on one. Maybe get a 10k fine….and lose a deer. Still, $5000 average is cheaper than paying to legally hunt same size deer. If they get caught less, even more gain…

    Fines aren’t tough enough..strike three should be a felony, lose guns, lose hunting…oh….lose bow and arrows too.

  5. The article didn’t mention the suspension or revocation of licensing for the compact states. Although, I suppose poachers don’t care about being licensed anyway. The criminal mindset has no conscience for law and order or doing the right thing even when no one is watching; which happens to be one definition of integrity. Fortunately, the good guys are still 95% of us and we need to be good witnesses. You are the good people that keeps me out there enforcing our natural resources laws for more than 25 years now. Thanks Eastmans for keeping the topic on the hot list.

  6. Not sure those amounts are correct for my home state of CO, but regardless, agree with the others, the fines are way too low all around. 1st infraction, fine $20k-$50k and permanent ban from hunting from the State alliance (some 40+ states now) and this crap will stop. If they get caught a 2nd time, mandatory 5 yrs prison.

  7. 1/14/2004
    Division of Wildlife

    An Iowa man charged with poaching in Colorado and Iowa has been sentenced to nearly five years in prison.

    The Colorado Division of Wildlife�s (DOW) anti-poaching initiative, Operation Game Thief, is getting a financial boost from an unlikely source: a convicted poacher.

    On Jan. 6, George Allen Waters, 53, of West Branch, Iowa, was sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison for his part in the poaching of dozens of trophy-quality deer and elk in Colorado beginning in the early-1990s. State and federal authorities described the case as one of the largest poaching investigations in years.

    Waters is expected to begin serving his prison term the week of Jan. 12. Under a plea agreement, he paid a restitution of $30,000, of which half will go to Operation Game Thief. A judge in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Rock Island, Ill., also imposed a hunting ban on Waters that is expected to remain in effect during three years of supervised probation following his prison term.

    DOW investigator Glenn Smith said federal prosecutors expect to proceed with their case against several other defendants next week. Waters� prosecution was the result of a joint investigation by the DOW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Attorney�s Office in Iowa, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

    �The investigation that led to Waters� conviction highlights the dedication and hard work of state and federal wildlife officers in pursuing people suspected of poaching our wildlife,� Smith said. �Only through teamwork were we able to track down Waters and the others. Hopefully, the outcome will serve as a cautionary tale for everyone.�

    Waters pleaded guilty to federal poaching charges in September, including two felony violations of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law, and one felony charge of illegal possession of a machine gun. State and federal authorities said he admitted to poaching 45 trophy-quality animals valued at $270,000. Investigators said the deer and elk were taken in Iowa and from western Colorado.

    His sentencing came a week after a second man, Kevin Lee Chelf, 44, of Iowa City, pleaded guilty in the case. Under a plea agreement, he will serve eight months in federal prison without parole, pay a fine, and serve one year of supervised probation. Some $7,500 of Chelf�s fine will go to Operation Game Thief, Smith said.

    For more information about Operation Game Thief, visit http://wildlife.state.co.us/OGT/

    I’m quite familiar with some of the details of this case. Waters took five years at the Federal Prison in Yankton,SD as if it was a trip to Disneyland. Figures showed that he poached $270,000 worth of deer and elk. Wondering where the money is.

  8. If states are not going to institute stiff fines, then at a minimum all equipment associated with the crime gets confiscated. Guns, vehicles, everything- that will get their attention. And- you lose all hunting privileges in the U.S. for five years.

  9. Nathan MacDonald

    I don’t think the fines are enough to stop people from Poaching . First they have to catch you , and there are not enough Fish/ game wardens out there to catch everyone. The penalties need to be stiffer for people caught poaching . I hear every year about people I know shooting deer , elk for someone else . Is that the same as poaching . Many people will do that shoot there deer or elk , for a friend ?? There are lots of people out there catching more fish than they should and shooting more deer, elk than they should. There really are a lot of dishonest people out there. The same people that catch more fish than they should , and shoot more elk, deer than they should are the same people that are complaining because there are not enough fish and not enough deer and elk out there . The penalties really need to be stiffer, and they need more fish and game wardens out there.

  10. need to be higher

  11. $25,000 across the board, regardless of sex, age, game type, etc. lifetime hunting/fishing ban. 365 days in jail. Can’t pay the fine or do the time don’t commit the crime!!

  12. Raleigh Whalen

    Castration and mandatory jail time is the proper punishment.

  13. David Fontaine

    The fact that wildlife belongs to everyone should mean that it’s a public treasure. With that thought
    you’d think we as a society would treat poaching for what it truly is THEFT. As is the case with so many things in our society, we cut taxes, under fund, have different laws for different people (the rich) and expect supreme enforcement. Until we, line item by line item decide what we think is important enough TO PAY FOR, then we ‘reap what we sow’. Democracy (our form of CAPITALISM) points us toward scamming, cheating, trying to get over on someone or something.
    The erosion of morals, has made us all think and has been proven we can get away with it. No matter what it is.

  14. Michael K. Hughes

    I agree with the way they deal with them in Africa.

  15. An important question would be, what definition of poaching is being used. Blatantly taking a trophy deer out of season should absolutely be punished severely, but how about the guy who makes an honest mistake with no intent to commit a game violation.

    Years ago my dad shot a small forked horn buck as it was entering some trees, it ran out the other side and he was able to put it down with a follow up shot. Problem being, he found two very similar looking forked horn bucks when he went to retrieve his deer. Game violation for sure, because he took too many deer, but is that deserving of a severe punishment. This was a late season tag in a trophy unit, so he was certainly not just looking to take a “trophy”.

  16. Dennis Hauser

    At one time I didn’t believe any restitution was enough for poaching.
    After working with troubled youth for a dozen years, and becoming acquainted with our justice system there is not a one size fits all when it comes to poaching.
    My biggest issue is what really is poaching ? And what does our justice system end up considering appropriate restitution?
    20 years back I was aware of a 14 year old, with his father got “buck fever” his single shot dropped a cow with his bull tag. The youth turned himself in and ended up with a big fine and 200 hours of community service.
    At the same time a meth-cooker was caught with a pile of mule deer racks over 160 that he was selling. That states game department chose not t prosecute on the wildlife violations.
    I believe those that skirt other laws are at times poachers too,.. Such as driving into closed areas
    to vehicles to access game more easy for them.
    I do believe taking trophy animals should certainly have a greater consequence, even more so, those targeting trophy animals out of season.
    And what of those that “party” hunt!
    I firmly believe restitution should “hurt” those with ill intentions and greater resources should pay more. Hours of their personal time would be more effective than their money.

  17. If I hit an elk in my truck does the state pay for the damage? So who is a poacher paying when they are fined? Does the state own the animal or the people? Completely different argument but just about as worth arguing over as poaching fines. Most of us pay in draw fees much more than a poaching fine which probably tempts more people to poach. I have to buy a nonresident license just to apply for a tag in a state I will never hunt unless I draw that tag? Who are the criminals again? I’d say the states are being more than compensated by requiring me to buy a license at an inflated price just to have a chance to draw a tag. Many people here say true state should revoke hunting privileges…..yeah, that’ll teach a poacher.

    • David L Hoshour

      Compensation under restitution is usually thought of as to the people. However, that might end up being checks for 5 cents or something if mailed to residents. It usually goes to the Game & Fish but can go to other departments.
      I don’t think you’ve likely paid more than the amounts commonly listed under trophy animals but you may be right on “lesser animals.” I think that’s a valid point.
      I also share your frustration over buying a nonrefundable license just to apply. That really adds up for both the applicant and the State. To spread the cost, that requirement encourages people to do their nonresident applications in one or two states.
      To your last point, I support taking away hunting privileges, but you’re right, the poaching often has little to do with a valid license. But, it does when people party hunt (shoot an animal for someone else in their group) and that is a practice that we all ought to be very vocal about stopping. It is poaching, and if I’m aware of it, be sure that I will call it in.

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