Trophy bucks are a transient phenomenon.
Their antlers are fully grown for just four months of the year. During those four months, however, they create headaches for law enforcement officers.
From early September, when a trophy buck rubs the velvety covering off its antlers, to early January, when he sheds that impressive headgear, he’s a target.
Hunters seek him. So do poachers. Every year, throughout West Virginia, poachers employ every illegal means at their disposal to kill him.
They hunt him at night. They hunt him from vehicles. They hunt him out of season. They trespass on other people’s property to get a shot at him.
Inevitably, some of them get what they’re after. Some of them get away with it, some don’t. West Virginia is a small state, and word gets around.
“Most of the information we get comes from the public,” said Officer Joshua Toner of the state Natural Resources Police. “They find out some information about somebody that might have done something, and we go in and investigate it.”
Most West Virginia counties have only one or two officers to cover hundreds of square miles.
“We can’t be everywhere at once, so we rely on the public to tell us when they see the law being broken,” said Toner, a 10-year NRP veteran.
Receiving a tip is one thing; making a strong case is quite another. Sometimes informants’ tips are hearsay, based on information they’ve heard from someone else. Officers must then try to trace the information back to its original source.
“The hardest thing we run into is that people often don’t want to inform on someone,” Toner said. “Usually, the phrase we hear is, ‘I don’t want to get burned out.’ What they’re saying is they’re afraid the perpetrator is going to burn their house down.
“Truth is, I’ve never heard of anyone’s house being burned down since I’ve been doing this. I think people are basing that [fear] off things that happened a long time ago, or on law-breakers issuing threats to make [potential informants] more reluctant to provide information.”
If people are willing to identify the alleged perpetrator, officers must then question the suspect to see if they can obtain a confession.
“Sometimes, they’re otherwise law-abiding people who couldn’t resist temptation and killed a deer illegally,” Toner said. “Usually, just from talking to them, they’ll admit what they did.
“For some people, though, [lawbreaking] has just been a system for them their whole lives. They don’t abide by any laws, and game laws are no different for them,” he said. “They’re the ones who will deny what they’ve done all the way to the end. You can show them the evidence, and they won’t refute it because they can’t refute it, but they’ll still say they didn’t do it.”
Many cases, if not most, end in magistrate court. Suspects who have admitted to their violations pay their fines and go on about their lives.
Suspects who fight the charges can keep a case tied up in court for years. Toner said one case that involved a 13-point trophy buck took more than four years to work its way through the court system.
The buck was spotlighted and killed with a high-powered rifle the night before the archery season began.
“That deer was checked in [as a bow kill] on Sept. 26, 2015,” Toner said. “Only within the last year was that case finally resolved.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some cases are slam dunks. Late last year in District 5, a Boone County man saw a big-antlered buck running along W.Va. Route 3 in Boone County. The man stopped his vehicle, pulled out a rifle and shot the buck from the edge of the highway.
Officers had no trouble running the case down; someone posted a video of the kill on Facebook, and the suspect confessed when questioned.
Toner said violators’ tendency to post their activities to social media has helped NRP officers break more than a few cases. But even without social media, word gets around about illegal kills.
“It’s difficult for [poachers] to cover their tracks all the way, because, when they kill a trophy buck, they tend to want to talk about it,” he added.
Once officers have made a sound case, getting a verdict against the offender isn’t particularly difficult, Toner said; the hard part is waiting for the case to work its way through the legal system.
“The court system, in general, is just so tied up, it can take quite a while,” he said. “It’s not something that’s unique to fish and wildlife. Cases for other types of crimes can take just as long to be adjudicated.”
There appears to be no shortage of cases. Capt. Woodrow Brogan, who heads up the Beckley-based District 4 NRP detachment, said his officers worked more than 40 cases in 2019 that involved illegal deer kills. Capt. Terry Ballard, who heads up the Alum Creek-based District 5 detachment, said his officers investigated 78 complaints and made 42 arrests.
Many of those cases came to light because of information provided by the public. Toner hopes that, in future years, more people come forward when they run across evidence of poaching.
“Poaching is theft,” he said. “Deer are a public resource. When someone poaches a deer, they’re stealing from everyone else.
“West Virginians tend to take pride in what they have, and one of the best things they have is their natural resources. When they come forward, they help protect those resources.”