John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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One of my stories for this week’s Gazette-Mail outdoors page points out the sea change that has taken place in the fines charged for poaching trophy deer in West Virginia:
Deer poachers are learning that West Virginia’s game laws are no longer cheap to violate.
Since a 2010 law increased the fines for killing deer with trophy antlers, state Natural Resources Police haven’t been shy about imposing what they call “enhanced penalties” on violators.
Several times already this season, officers have cited individuals for killing bucks with antler spreads greater than 14 inches. Courts haven’t yet levied fines in cases still pending, but they have handed down steep fines in others.
In Preston County, for example, 39-year-old Ernest Nice of Terra Alta was charged with illegally killing and possessing a buck with a 15 1/2-inch antler spread. Nice was assessed $1,782.40 in fines and court costs.
Nice’s alleged accomplice, 37-year-old Bryan Sypolt of Terra Alta, was fined $682.40 for hunting without a license, illegal possession of wildlife, and providing false information to an officer.
One thousand dollars of Nice’s fine related to the buck’s antler size. The new law established the “replacement fee” for killing a buck with a 14- to 16-inch spread at $1,000, a buck with a 16- to 18-inch spread at $1,500, a buck with an 18- to 20-inch spread at $2,000, and a buck with a spread of 20 inches or greater at $2,500.
Division of Natural Resources officials pushed for the law during the 2010 legislative session, hoping it would help curb the toll poachers had been taking on the state’s trophy-rich southern deer herd. In four counties – Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming – deer hunting with firearms has been illegal since 1979, and since then the area has attained a reputation for producing big-antlered bucks.
Only a handful of cases were prosecuted last year, mainly because trophy bucks were less abundant than in previous years. This year, by all accounts, the number of big-antlered whitetails has increased dramatically. So, apparently, has interest in poaching.
“We have a couple of cases pending down in Logan County already,” said Capt. Kaven Ransom, the head Natural Resources police officer for the state’s southwestern counties. “Both of them were eight-point bucks. One barely qualified for the enhanced fines; the other was pretty-good sized.”
Fines haven’t yet been levied, but Ransom expects the courts to stick to the letter of the law. “They’re pretty protective of their deer down there,” he said.
Capt. Larry Case of the Beckley office said poaching arrests are up in his neck of the woods, too, although so far only one of the arrests involved a trophy-sized buck.
“This fall, for whatever reason, we’re busier than usual,” he said. “We’re definitely getting more illegal deer kills, mainly in Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties.”
The trophy arrest occurred earlier this week, when Natural Resources Police officer Gabe Wood arrested 38-year-old Tommy Witt II of Princeton for the out-of-season shooting of a nine-point buck with an 18-inch antler spread. Witt faces a $2,000 trophy replacement fee and additional fines that could total as much as $1,000 more.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that several trophy-related arrests have been made in the state’s northern counties, which usually don’t produce many big-antlered bucks.
“In our neck of the woods, some serious arresting is going on in relation to the enhanced penalties,” said Capt. Bill Persinger. “In addition to the [Preston and Wetzel county cases] we’ve issued news releases about, we have a case pending in Harrison County, another in Preston and another in Wetzel.”
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, called the timing of the arrests “perfect.”
“A lot of guys are out in the woods now, and they’re seeing some nice bucks. If they know they might have to pay $1,000 to $2,000 in additional fines, they might think twice about taking those bucks illegally,” he said.
Lt. Col. Jerry Jenkins, second in command at the DNR’s Law Enforcement Section, also believes the enhanced fines will help deter would-be poachers.
“As news of these arrests gets out, it will have a deterrent effect,” he said. “I know one thing: It sure is a far cry from the ‘old days,’ when poaching a buck of any size only brought you a fine of $20 plus court costs.”