New Pennsylvania laws haven't curbed the worst cases of wildlife poaching


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In January 2010, a 22-year-old West Virginia woman and an accomplice engaged in a killing spree that spanned two days and six counties. Armed with .22- and .17-caliber rifles, they drove around the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border at night spotlighting and opening fire on deer, mortally wounding some and leaving others to suffer for days before dying.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission considered it unsportsmanlike conduct at its worst.

Nearly three years later, new state laws are targeting "thrill kill" wildlife poachers with higher penalties that treat poaching as theft of public property, and PGC has increased enforcement patrols and orchestrated multi-agency task force raids on poaching suspects.

Nevertheless, the new laws have not curbed the trend in thrill-kill poaching. The number of poaching cases has significantly increased since the laws were enacted.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Dan Sitler, who led the investigation in the egregious 2010 thrill-kill case, said it was one of the worst he's seen in the 13 years he's been in the field.

"It's a very despicable practice," he said. "We take all poaching very seriously, but when you get into these thrill kills there's not a person out there that can justify that. It's just outright wrong."

Trishelle Barish of Weirton, W.Va., pleaded guilty to 10 charges related to the poaching incident, amounting to more than $6,000 in fines and restitution plus court costs and an 18-year revocation of her Pennsylvania non-resident hunting license.

Had the spree occurred seven months later, she would have faced felony charges.

In July 2010, state legislators passed a law patterned after language in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code regarding theft offenses, whereby the more a violator steals, the higher the penalties.

Under the law, first-time offenders caught jacklighting a deer, killing a deer or turkey out of season or exceeding the deer or turkey bag limit face 90 days imprisonment, a fine of at least $1,000 and a three-year loss of hunting privileges. First-offense convictions for bear or elk violations could result in a fine up to $3,000, as much as six months in jail or the loss of hunting license privileges for up to five years. Serial poaching or committing multiple illegal kills in a single episode is a felony that carries fines of up to $15,000 and 36 months in jail.

The former penalty for shooting a deer at night using a light was $200 to $300.

"If you look at it as the theft of wildlife, then why shouldn't we treat it the same as the theft of any other natural resource," said Rich Palmer, PGC director of the bureau of wildlife protection.

In another anti-poaching move in 2010, Pennsylvania enacted a law that prevents convicted wildlife poachers from most other states from purchasing a Pennsylvania hunting license. It also denies out-of-state hunting privileges to Pennsylvanians convicted of poaching here and keeps Pennsylvanians convicted of poaching elsewhere from getting a resident license. With membership in the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, Pennsylvania joined 37 states that support the suspension of state hunting privileges in all participating states following a conviction of wildlife poaching in any member state.

But the strong new laws haven't curbed wildlife poaching. The number of incidents of thrill killing have increased significantly with poaching now occurring in all 67 counties in the state. Palmer described it as a disturbing trend in Pennsylvania and other states, as well.

In response, the PGC has increased its enforcement presence and begun targeting poachers and thrill killers with large-scale, organized task forces. Last year, the agency ran the statewide Operation Talon, which involved more than 500 officers including Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officers and deputies, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, state forest rangers and state police with air surveillance.

Palmer described the operation as very successful and said the PGC plans to do it again this year. Smaller, regional task forces worked as well, he said.

But that may not be enough. Despite those efforts, Palmer said total violations in all poaching categories rose from 18,435 in 2010-11 to 20,144 in 2011-12. The total number of citations, arrests and prosecutions in 2012 amounted to 6,537, up from 6,189 the year before.

Nevertheless, Palmer cites evidence that the new laws are having an effect. The PGC has gathered intelligence, he said, that a new sense of deterrence has been created, and reports from officers working night patrols indicate there was less poaching activity in 2012.

Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, said his initial concern about the Wildlife Violator Compact law -- that it would deny gun ownership rights to Game and Wildlife Code felons -- was satisfied by an amendment that weakened its impact on denial of gun ownership rights.

"Since being enacted, [it] is doing its job by increasing fines and penalties, enacting stiffer punishments for poachers, and improving hunter safety throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," he said.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Dan Puhala, whose beat includes parts of Allegheny County, said the tougher laws are acting as a deterrent and have given officers more muscle in the field. In a recent case, he used DNA evidence to capture and convict a poacher.

"I think people think that we're bluffing," he said. "Those tools are there, and if that's what it comes to, then personally I don't have a problem doing it."

Puhala said poaching motivation often stems from greed, obsession, a sense of entitlement or the view that game laws, as well as other laws, are there to be broken.

In most cases, however, Sitler said there's no valid reason for wildlife thrill killing, or as he calls it, "joy shooting."

"It's difficult to tell what their reasons are," he said. "If I could figure out the mentality of poaching, I'd write a book."

Wildlife management authorities consider the trill-kill mentality a complete disregard for wildlife, for which something has to be done.

"I personally feel like I have to protect that which can't protect itself," said Puhala. "It's our job. You have to be a voice for something that doesn't have a voice."

Pennsylvania's Turn In A Poacher program offers a $250 reward for a tip resulting in a conviction for poaching a threatened, endangered or big game animal. Call 888-PGC-8001 or visit www.pgc.state.pa.us.

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