Elk poaching has beengoing on in Michigan since they were first re-introduced almost 100 years ago.
My first introduction to elk poaching began in the fall of 1997 when I started with the law enforcement division of the DNR as the District Law Supervisor (Lieutenant) at the Gaylord District office. As the District Law Supervisor, you are responsible for the DNR law enforcement in the counties in your district. The Gaylord District office at that time included the eight northern counties in the lower peninsular which includes what people normally called elk country.
During the elk opener of 1997 I was working with Conservation Officer Kelly Ross. Kelly was and still is assigned to Montmorency County. On the opener I was working with him when we got involved in a case where a hunter who had drawn a bull elk tag shot three elk on the opening day.
In this case the hunter had shot at one bull in a herd of several bulls. The hunter thought he missed because the bull didn’t go down (not that uncommon for an elk) so the hunter shot at another bull and then another bull as the herd started moving after the shots.
The hunter brought one bull into the check station and left the other two. When Conservation Officer Kelly Ross and I went to the location of the shooting we found another bull dead and a blood trail that lead us to another bull that had to be put down by CO Ross. Needless to say the hunter was charged with an over limit of elk.
That was my first experience with elk poaching. During the time period I spent in Gaylord there were many more elk cases that came and went. Over the years the Conservation Officers working the elk country have made some great elk cases.
One that sticks in my mind was a case involving Conservation Officers Rick Ackerberg and Kathy Bezotte (both retired), who solved a case by tracking garbage bags back to the subject who had used them in disposing of the evidence.
Recently I talked to Conservation Officer Mark DePew who is assigned to Otsego County about recent elk poaching cases.
CO DePew told me there were eight confirmed elk poaching cases in 2014 and four cases that are unknown if they died from natural causes or were poached. Four of those unsolved cases are still being investigated and another four have been solved.
Of those three closed cases the Opening Day Elk case started when CO Kelly Ross received a complaint that an elk had been shot by a deer hunter, it occurred on Saturday November 15 at approximately 10:15 a.m. in Montmorency Co.
When the officers arrived on the scene they found a dead 4×4 bull elk. They searched the surrounding area and found footprints in the snow which lead directly to a treestand that was reportedly used by the shooter. Officers found cigarette butts which were collected, photographs were taken of the footprints and the officers found multiple bait piles.
Sergeant Joe Molnar arrived and the officers decided they would stake the area out overnight to see if the shooter returned. Officers stayed until daylight but no one returned to the scene.
Shortly after daylight CO Ross found footprints in the fresh snow that matched the footprints found near the dead elk. After a short period of time the COs made contact with a hunter who they suspected to be the poacher.
After a short interview the suspect confessed to CO DePew. The suspect was then taken into custody. The suspect was taken back to the scene where he gave the COs a play-by-play of how he shot the elk.
The suspect was charged with illegally killing an elk and for baiting in a county closed to baiting.
The suspect pled guilty, his fines and restitution for the elk totaled $3,125.00. His rifle was forfeited; his hunting privileges were lost until January 2019. He was also given a 30 day delayed jail sentence for 1 year.
Over the years there have been many elk poached on the opening day of deer season. Some were killed intentionally and some were mistaken for deer! Hard to believe someone could mistake an elk for a deer.
The Receipt Elk Case started on November 29, 2014 at approximately 6:30pm when CO Nick Torsky received a RAP complaint which lead to a lower leg/foot of an elk. It appeared to the CO that a saw was used on the carcass.
Nearby, CO Torsky found two more legs/feet and entrails of the elk. Due to ambient temperatures being above freezing during the previous 24-48 hour period there was no recognizable tracks that could be identified at the scene by humans or from a vehicle.
On December 2, 2014 CO Torsky responded to a complaint of deer hides dumped in the Sturgeon River at the Old Vanderbilt Road Bridge. CO Torsky also found an elk hide with the head still attached. It appeared to be a small bull. The antlers had been removed from the skull of the elk.
At the time, it was unknown if the two cases were related. While CO Torsky was examining the entrails they found a receipt that was stuck to the outside of the intestines.
It took sometime before CO Torsky found what appeared to be a bullet hole at the base of the skull. The size of the head and hide were consistent with the size of the previously collect entrails and feet.
A search warrant was obtained based on the receipt found along with other information which later lead to a confession from the suspect. The Wildlife Resource Protection Unit (WRP) conducted the interview and obtained the confession in this case. The WRP is a group of COs who are detectives who conduct covert and overt investigations for LED. They investigate organize poaching and assist Conservation Officers on investigations when needed.
The poacher pled guilty. He was ordered to pay $2,420.00 in fines and restitution, given five days in jail and six months probation. He also lost his hunting privileges until January 2019.
Another subject mistakenly shot an elk (6×6 bull) on November 18. He reported it and because he reported it and it was not intentional he was fined $1500.00.
One of the unsolved cases happened on Meridian Line Road in Otsego County on November 1, 2014. CO Ross received a complaint of an injured spike bull. COs Bellville and DePew arrived to assist. The elk had to be put down by the officers and while the elk was being skinned by CO Bellville he discovered evidence indicating an injury to the elk consistent with a gunshot located directly below the spine. This case is still actively being investigated by officers.
COs are investigating a bull that was found dead on Decheau Lake and Meaford Roads in Montmorency County. They discovered that the bull had been shot in the chest. The meat and the antlers had been removed by the poacher or poachers who shot this bull. COs are still working this case.
COs are still investigating other elk poaching cases besides the ones mentioned in this article. Most likely there are elk poached each year that the officers may not ever discover.
In the 1990s I had received information from a family member who told me that members of his family would come up to northern Michigan (elk country) and poach elk. One such family member had poached a 7×7 bull and had it hanging in his home. This informant couldn’t get any further involved in this case, other than the information he had passed on to me.
I did as much investigation as I could with the information that I had. COs working the elk country weren’t aware of any 7×7 bull elk being poached. I finally made contact with the suspect at his home in an attempt to interview him to see what information he would give up.
He wouldn’t give anything up, other than someone had given the 7×7 elk mount to him. He had it proudly hanging on his wall in his great room, probably telling everyone who would listen about what a great hunter he was!
Just like any other animal in this state, they belong to all of us. Most follow the rules, some don’t. The ones who don’t are criminals and stealing from all of us.
When the officers arrive at these scenes, they treat them just like any other crime scene. They look for tire tracks, finger prints, DNA and any other evidence that may have been left at the scene. They conduct a necropsy to look for cause of death, bullet fragments and other evidence.
I can recall another bull elk poached in Otsego that went undetected by officers until the shooter was bragging about it in a bar. Someone who overheard the poacher and called the report all poaching hotline and reported it. It didn’t take COs long to discover who the suspect was. After a short investigation the elk was recovered along with the antlers and the poacher was arrested.
It is very difficult to draw an elk tag. I have been putting in for 30 years and have not drawn a tag, probably just like many of you reading this article. Drawing a tag is like winning a lottery. Almost 30,000 hunters apply for an any-sex tag; there are another 14,000 who apply for a bull only tag. There used to be around 300 tags issued back in the 1990s, now around 70 total tags are issued. With so few tags and so many Michigan hunters applying, we don’t need poachers out there not following the rules. They are poaching elk that someone who legally draws a tag could be harvesting. Better yet, it could help raise the herd numbers and allow more tags to be issued each year.
If you know of anyone who has poached an elk, is talking about poaching an elk or any other animal that belongs to all of us, please report it to the Report All Poaching Hot-Line at 1-800-292-7800.
Author is Jeff Pendergraff, retired Captain from the Law Enforcement Division of the DNR.