Traverse City News and Events

Resolving The Rash Of Elk Poaching In Pigeon River

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 12, 2020

There were eight elk killed in poaching cases in the Pigeon River State Forest this season. As Patrick Sullivan writes in this week's Northern Express - sister publication of The Ticker - five of those killings remain unsolved. Michigan Department of Natural Resources investigators want to catch those responsible for every last elk death, even if it takes years.

The eight dead elk may not set a poaching record, but since five of those deaths remain open cases, Department of Natural Resources investigators are working overtime to solve those crimes. On top of that, one of the cases, the killing of three cow elk at the beginning of December, was a seemingly nonsensical massacre.
 
“It should sicken people,” says Lt. James Gorno of the DNR law enforcement division in Gaylord.  “It really should. I mean, they’re just laying there and they get wiped out. It’s like a slaughter.”
 
In the scheme of things, under Michigan law, poaching elk is a minor crime. It can be a costly crime, especially for those who have devoted their lives to hunting: a conviction can cost a person their hunting privileges and carry penalty of $5,000 or more. It’s still a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail, three days less than the maximum sentence for a first-offense drunk driver.

You wouldn’t know it was a low-level crime by the way DNR officers investigate it, however. They treat poaching the way regular police treat homicide. Making an elk poaching case can sometimes take years, Gorno says, but DNR officers are committed to solving them, no matter what. “We consider our elk one of our top species here that we’ve got to protect, elk and sturgeon out of Black Lake, so we treat that like a homicide, like a normal big police agency would treat a homicide for a human,” Gorno says. “There’s dozens and dozens of officers who have made unbelievable elk cases with nothing; with receipts and hair and just bullet fragments and rumors.”

Accidental shots make up many of the poaching cases in Pigeon River Country. That’s what three of the eight cases were this season, and in each of those three cases, the culprits turned themselves in to authorities. They occurred over the first weekend of firearm deer season; each one involved a deer hunter. While the punishment for poaching usually involves some jail time (usually around 10 days) and thousands in fines and costs, Gorno says they try to take it easy on people who accidentally shoot an elk and who turn themselves in.
 
“We work with the court to try to break that ($5,000) in half or even not even charge them with a crime, have them just pay half or a third of the restitution or the reimbursement to the state, so it is a far cry from getting prosecuted for poaching,” Gorno says. “We want to encourage people to come forward.”
 
When the shooters don’t come forward, like in the case of the five other dead elk, investigators have their work cut out for them. Gorno says that despite scant evidence, he is hopeful that some of those cases will be solved. Gorno says there are suspects in one of the bull elk cases and in the three dead cow elk case, though he wasn’t ready to say those cases had been solved. Bad weather wrecked the crime scene in the other bull elk case and that one has gone cold, he says.

Read more about the elk poaching cases in this week's Northern Expressavailable to read online and on newsstands at nearly 700 spots in 14 counties across northern Michigan.

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