What’s for dinner?
When the going gets tough,the desperate poach wildlife
It was like a scene from a vivid horror movie. The rotten remains and antlers of more than 200 deer were strewn across the homestead in rural Williams, Calif. A loaded 9-millimeter lay on the counter and more than 100 guns were found elsewhere, including an assault rifle. Many of the deer were almost certainly killed illegally.
Such is just one of several particularly bloody cases in recent months which indicate an increase in poaching activity in the Sacramento Delta region, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. Warden Patrick Foy, who responded to the tip in Williams, speculates that as the economy flounders, state residents are supplementing their income and frozen-foods supply through illegal killing and marketing of wildlife.
“There are a lot of people very adept at hunting and fishing, and we’ve seen a lot of cases where people might be subsidizing their welfare checks with poached fish and game,” said Foy, who carries a Glock .40 caliber as he makes regular patrols in and outside of Sacramento, searching for unlawful hunters and fishermen.
Proving that the deer strewn about the property in Williams were poached is difficult. However, the remains of nine fresh deer in the freezer almost certainly represent illegal kills, and two of the home’s residents have been charged with misdemeanor deer poaching and felony weapons possession.
They’re not alone by any means. On January 3, two Sacramento men were arrested after wardens found them selling poached deer meat to Samthong Meat Market on Franklin Boulevard. The store’s owner was later arrested, too. Records indicate the hunters received $150 per deer. Now, with felony conspiracy charges pressed against the suspects, prison time and thousands of dollars in fines likely await. A search of the men’s home also revealed frozen abalone, wild mushrooms, bluegill and squirrels—all presumably for sale. Selling fish and game is illegal in California, even if the animals are initially taken lawfully.
But commercial profit did not seem be the motive in a case last year in Sutter County in which wardens discovered the butchery of two teenagers who had shot and abandoned—apparently for kicks—13 deer, a sandhill crane, turkey vultures and coyotes over a six-week period. And in 2008, a case against a Tuolumne County man finally wrapped up. He had killed 27 deer in 2006, and after a sluggish court process, he received some jail time and several thousand dollars in fines, according to Foy.
In late February, wardens found three dead pronghorn antelope near Mount Lassen, off Highway 395. They had been shot and abandoned, and the wardens had to put down two more that were mortally wounded. No suspects have been identified.
While terrestrials take bullets, white sturgeon are now leaving the salty waters of San Francisco Bay to swim upriver and spawn. The females are brimming with eggs, and few sorts of edible contraband command such a price as caviar. Illegally produced caviar is commonplace though largely undocumented, says Foy. He warns consumers that any package containing significantly more than an ounce of eggs should arouse suspicion, as most legitimate companies package the product in morsel-sized portions. Unmarked mason jars are also a sign of unscrupulous marketing.
In addition to caviar, sturgeon meat itself sells well in restaurants. However, identifying illegal sturgeon meat can be difficult, as a commercial fishery in the Pacific Northwest and fish farms in California produce a constant inflow of legal meat.
Thus, wardens must catch poachers in the act—and they often do so minutes from downtown. On February 7, a warden with the Delta-Bay Enhancement Enforcement Program cited a shore fisherman for possessing a 6-and-a-half-foot-long white sturgeon. White sturgeon, which may grow to well over 14 feet and 1,000 pounds, must be released if they measure longer than 66 inches or less than 46 inches. The limit per licensed angler is one daily and three per year.
Just a week prior, a sting operation in Sacramento led to the arrest of a man who, under the watch of wardens, took four large sturgeon from the Sacramento River during six days of fishing. Wardens followed as he drove the fish to San Jose and sold at least 100 pounds of meat to two restaurants. Evidence against the suspect is firm, and he is likely to pay hefty fines.
Confiscated fish and game is generally frozen and preserved as evidence by state authorities. Eventually, says Foy, all gets incinerated or otherwise destroyed.
Some 275 wardens currently guard the wildlife of California, with no more than a dozen patrolling the Sacramento region at a time.
“But there’s never enough,” said Foy. “I think we could double the number of wardens in the state and there wouldn’t be enough of us to protect fish and wildlife.”