Packs of hound dogs ripping apart black bears. Heads lopped off of deer and elk along popular hiking trails and their bodies left behind to rot.
These are just some of the accusations resulting from a multiyear investigation by wildlife enforcement agents in two states who have uncovered an unprecedented poaching ring based in Cowlitz County.
Wildlife officials say the poachers have illegally killed hundreds of deer, elk, bear, cougar and bobcats.
The investigation began two years ago when wildlife officials in Oregon began finding the bodies of buck deer along popular trails, their heads cut off and taken presumably as trophies.
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Hidden trail cameras were set up in those areas, and law enforcement officials caught two perpetrators in December in the act of poaching.
Officials served warrants in Cowlitz County that opened up evidence of the group’s grisly world of poaching and the wasting of wild animals.
“We’re digging through the evidence and trying to capture it all in a way so that someone can digest this massive amount of information that we’re going to be presenting,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of west-side enforcement operations for the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife. Cenci admitted to being coy about the exact location of some of the known poaching scenes, but at least one case is known to have happened as far away as The Dalles, Oregon.
“It’s safe to say Southwest Washington,” Cenci said. “I don’t want to inadvertently leave a county out, but we know where the lion’s share of the poaching happened.”
Censi said this case is notable for the complexity, ruthlessness and longevity of the operation.
“Certainly the closed season take of big game animals is something that happens 365 days a year, and the primary species involved would be bear, deer, elk, cougar and bobcat,” said Cenci, who noted that many of the illegal killings happen in the dark with the aid of high-powered spotlights that blind the animals.
Although more poaching and illegal hunting citations are written during hunting seasons, Cenci is uncertain whether those law-based distinctions have much effect on the overall poaching effort.
“We know that some people use a regulated season as cover. We also tend to throw more weight at a regulated season. So as you get closer to the deer season, we know that somebody might illegally start early,” Cenci said. “I don’t know if the activity is greater then, but our activity certainly is more focused.”
Cenci said there are distinct types of natural resource violators, and the poaching ring discovered in Cowlitz County represents the worst of the worst.
“There’s three categories of violators in my view. There’s the fellow that makes a mistake and they are legitimately confused. Our guidelines can be complex and they stub their toe. That’s often times warning territory for us.
“Then you have the opportunist. Let’s say you hunted for three days hard but you got nothing, and then you’re coming out of the woods and here’s a deer just after shooting hours. It’s a legal buck and somebody’s ethics falter and they kill that deer. To me that’s more of an opportunist,” Cenci said.
“And then you have the hardcore violators. I think that’s the smallest percentage of our violators. ... We have to determine how much energy we’re going to spend trying to find that hardcore guy, which is much more difficult to find, rather than that opportunist who might be shied away by using deterrents, like decoys. With these hardcore guys there’s no deterrents. Maybe prison.”
Cenci said the Cowlitz County poaching ring seemed to be killing simply for the sake of killing, wantonly wasting the meat of the animals. Often the heads or racks were the only things taken.
Other times nothing was salvaged from the poached animal at all and it was simply left to rot.
On one video obtained by officials, a suspect can be heard bragging about killing four bears in one day while a pack of hunting hounds tears at one freshly poached bear carcass.
That type of behavior is something that the WDFW has been alarmed to document with increasing frequency in recent years.
“One of the things we are seeing is an increase in, for whatever reason, people going out and whacking animals and leaving the carcass in the field. ... No respect for the law for sure but even worse, no respect for the animal,” he said.
Cenci said the unfettered use of hound dogs by members of the poaching ring was a particularly disturbing aspect of the investigation. Using hounds to hunt bear, bobcat, cougar and lynx is illegal in Washington and Oregon, and the sheer savagery of the behavior has been unsettling to many who have seen the footage obtained from the cellphones of the accused.
“I think far more of this is happening than we’ve been aware of, but you don’t know if you don’t go. Again, there’s a lot of landscape out there and you know these guys obviously have killed a lot of animals right underneath our noses,” he said.
Cenci said the eyes and ears of the public are essential to helping WDFW enforcement know what’s going on behind their backs.
Because of the extent of the Cowlitz County criminal poaching ring activities, Cenci is at once eager to get the case to the prosecutor and hesitant to move forward too quickly for fear of bungling any of the necessary evidence. The fact that the crimes happened over such a broad period of time, for an array of species in multiple counties and two different states only serves to complicate matters.
“Our burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Our intent is to prosecute those folks for the same set of circumstances. Not just for possession instead of the hunt,” said Censi. “These are people we want to see punished to the fullest extent of the law and in order to do that we’ve got to do our jobs right.”