SW WASHINGTON — Local game wardens recently helped to expose a ring of violent poachers in Cowlitz and Skamania counties and other parts of Southwest Washington.
Last month, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers seized photos and videos that showed several men cruelly killing dozens of elk, deer, bears, bobcats and other animals outside of hunting season. Much of the suspected poaching took place on land that WDFW patrols. Other incidents occurred in Oregon, near Mount Hood.
“They’re just killers,” Deputy Chief Mike Cenci said on May 3. “They’re horrible people who have no respect for natural resources or the law.”
Investigators served more than 20 warrants at various Oregon and SW Washington locations over the last couple of months. In addition to the photos and videos, officers have seized four vehicles and “many rifles,” Cenci said.
There are at least 10 suspects in the case, according to Cenci. So far, none have been arrested because the investigation is ongoing. Investigators are not naming the suspects because no one has been charged yet. They are still sorting through “mountains of evidence,” Cenci said. So far, believe the suspects killed 30 to 50 bears out of season.
WDFW first learned of the alleged poaching late last year.
“One of our officers recognized that a photo depicting an elk showed a landscape he was familiar with. He understood it to be an area closed to elk hunting. That was the first evidence that Washington resources had been poached,” Cenci said. Around the same time, officers in the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Oregon State Police discovered headless deer carcasses, and traced the killings to Washington residents.
WDFW officers initially focused on helping their Oregon colleagues gather the evidence needed to close their poaching case. However, it soon became clear that they were dealing with an extraordinary poaching case on the Washington side of the border.
While serving the warrants, officers encountered scenes that were shocking even to veteran game wardens, Cenci said. At one Washington site, they found numerous decaying and mutilated mule deer that had been poached near The Dalles, Oregon.
“It looked like Jeffrey Dahmer’s workshop,” Cenci said. “Deer heads everywhere.”
The graphic photos and videos depict scenes in which the men and their dogs tormented bears, bobcats and other animals.
“We estimate 100 [illegally killed] animals or better are involved. The death toll continues to climb as we get more into it,” Cenci said.
The suspects generally did not eat the animals they killed. In many cases, they allegedly left the carcasses to rot. Currently, investigators don’t think the men were motivated by any specific ideology or membership in any particular group. Investigators have not found evidence of trafficking. So far, Cenci said, the common thread seems to be a shared fascination with hurting and killing animals.
“It’s just spree-killing,” Cenci said. “It’s a complete disregard for natural resources and the law. They don’t care about how they disadvantaged legitimate hunters or people who just like to see wildlife.”
Cenci said the case illustrates why the WDFW enforcement division needs more staff. This month, the state legislature is hashing out the budget for the new two-year budget cycle. He’s hoping they’ll pick a plan that will at least maintain current staffing levels, and ideally, increase them.
The evidence suggests the suspects carefully tracked when the game wardens were on duty, where they were working, and even where they lived. They allegedly planned their killing excursions for times when they were unlikely to encounter WDFW officers, Cenci said.
“They were really focused on our activities. This was planned,” Cenci said.
Currently, his department has about 135 officers statewide. He estimated about 30 percent of the officers were working on some aspect of the poaching case at any given time during 2017. Cenci says he needs twice as many officers to do an adequate job of protecting natural resources in Washington. For example, Cenci said, there were as many as 18,000 people on local beaches during last weekend’s huge clam tide. When a clammer got badly injured, WDFW officers were among the first to come to her aide. However, Cenci said, they had to balance providing protection and enforcement on the beach with numerous other competing responsibilities.
“Do you provide some presence, which I think is expected by the public? What do you leave unprotected?” Cenci said. “The bad guys know we’re limited.”