Extensive Southwest Washington Poaching Operation Shocks WDFW

By Jordan Nailon / jnailon@chronline.com

Packs of hound dogs viciously ripping apart black bears. Aggressively poached cougars and bobcats. Heads lopped off of deer and elk along popular hiking trails and their bodies left behind to rot.

These are just some of the accusations resulting from a multiple year investigation utilizing wildlife enforcement agents in two states that has identified an unprecedented suspected poaching ring based out of Cowlitz County.

Wildlife officials say the poachers have illegally killed hundreds of animals, including deer, elk, bear, cougar and bobcats. The investigation began two years ago when wildlife officials in Oregon began finding the bodies of buck deer along popular trails, their heads cut off and taken presumably as trophies. 

Hidden trail cameras were set up in those areas, and last December law enforcement officials were finally able to catch two of the perpetrators in the act of poaching.

Using information gleaned from that preliminary sleuthing, officials wound up serving warrants in Cowlitz County that opened up a twisted treasure trove of evidence into the group’s grisly world of poaching and wasting wild animals.

“We’re digging through the evidence and trying to capture it all in a way so that someone can digest this massive amount of information that we’re going to be presenting,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of westside enforcement operations for the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife. Cenci admitted to playing coy about the exact location of some of the known poaching scenes at this point in the investigation, but at least one case is known to have happened as far away as The Dalles, Oregon. 

“It’s safe to say Southwest Washington,” said Cenci. “I don’t want to inadvertently leave a county out, but we know where the lion’s share of the poaching happened.”

Censi says that poaching is a problem that he and his department are well aware of but that this particular case is notable for the complexity, ruthlessness and persistent longevity of the operation. Despite his obvious disdain for the illegal hunting, he says that trying to stop all poaching activities is, unfortunately, a fool’s errand.

“Certainly the closed season take of big game animals is something that happens 365 days a year, and the primary species involved would be bear, deer, elk, cougar and bobcat,” said Cenci, who noted that many of the illegal killings are perpetrated under the cover of darkness and with the illegal aid of high-powered spotlights that blind the animals.

“We do use decoys, but some of the poachers have become decoy shy. They’re no different than a smart mallard. Late in the poaching season they become wise.”

According to Cenci, the biggest challenge facing his department is a critical lack of staffing. He says it’s hard to justify sending resources blindly into the wide open woods in order to find a few secluded individuals when there are others who can be more effectively policed.

“You look at Long Beach clam digging. We had 18,000 people on the beach on Saturday. If you’re going to police that you’re going to leave a hole somewhere else,” said Cenci. “You can only stretch your same staff so far. You work all day, do you have the energy to work all night? Do you police the razor clam fishery, or do you go out in the woods to look for someone running hounds illegally?”

Cenci says that personnel and budget cuts coupled with the intricate nature of the sprawling terrain the WDFW enforcement program is tasked with covering has made for a nearly impossible task he put on par with retrieving the proverbial needle from a haystack

“It’s really tough to patrol such a vast geography, especially with the staff that we have,” lamented Cenci. “We make some really, really hard choices regarding what we’re going to do on any give day.”

Although more poaching and illegal hunting citations are written during actual hunting seasons, Cenci is uncertain if those law-based distinctions have much impact on the overall poaching effort.

“We know that some people use a regulated season as cover. We also tend to throw more weight at a regulated season. So as you get closer to the deer season we know that somebody might illegally start early,” said Cenci. “I don’t know if the activity is greater then, but our activity certainly is more focused.” 

The way Cenci sees it, there are distinct types of natural resource violators, and the poaching ring discovered in Cowlitz County represents the worst of the worst.

“There’s three categories of violators in my view. There’s the fellow that makes a mistake and they are legitimately confused. Our guidelines can be complex and they stub their toe. That’s often times warning territory for us.

“Then you have the opportunist. Let’s say you hunted for three days hard but you got nothing, and then you’re coming out of the woods and here’s a deer just after shooting hours. It’s a legal buck and somebody’s ethics falter and they kill that deer. To me that’s more of an opportunist,” explained Cenci. 

“And then you have the hardcore violators. I think that’s the smallest percentage of our violators. I can’t back that up statistically but that’s my feeling. We have to determine how much energy we’re going to spend trying to find that hardcore guy, which is much more difficult to find, rather than that opportunist who might be shied away by using deterrents, like decoys.WIth these hardcore guys there’s no deterrents. Maybe prison.”

Cenci said that the Cowlitz County poaching ring is from that hardcore contingent because they seemed to be killing simply for the sake of killing while wantonly wasting the meat of the animals. Oftentimes the heads or racks were the only things taken. Other times nothing was salvaged from the poached animal at all and it was simply left to rot.

On one video obtained by officials, a suspect can be heard bragging about killing four bears in one day while a pack of hunting hounds tears at one freshly poached bear carcass. 

“I’ve got relationships with people who have cheated in the outdoors, maybe opportunists, maybe borderline hardcore, but there was always a respect for the animals. This is a complete disregard for the animals,” said Cenci. 

That type of behavior is something that the WDFW has been alarmed to document with increasing frequency in recent years. 

“One of the things we are seeing is an increase in, for whatever reason, people going out and whacking animals and leaving the carcass in the field. What the hell? In my mind, and I’ve got a small brain, but to me that person just wanted to kill something. No respect for the law for sure but even worse, no respect for the animal.”

Cenci is trying hard not to let his frustration blind him to the valid intentions of the majority of folks who head out into the wildlands of Washington.

“I think most people are generally good, but they’re also human and so from time to time temptation gets in the way and someone violates a natural resource law,” said Cenci. “We’d prefer to catch every hardcore guy. They certainly do the most damage individually. Collectively? Statistically? Who knows.”

Cenci says that the unfettered use of hound dogs by members of the poaching ring was a particularly disturbing aspect uncovered during the investigation. Using hounds to hunt bear, bobcat, cougar or lynx is illegal in Washington and Oregon, and the sheer savagery of the behavior has been unsettling to many who have seen the footage that was obtained from cell phones of the accused. Censi is unsure of exactly how common the illegal use of hunting hounds is, but he’s smart enough to know it’s still happening somewhere.

“I think far more of this is happening than we’ve been aware of, but you don’t know if you don’t go. Again, there’s a lot of landscape out there and you know these guys obviously have killed a lot of animals right underneath our noses,” said Cenci. 

“Our officers were pretty frustrated when they saw some of the areas where the poaching occurred and they thought they had somehow failed the public. In reality we failed them. We need more of a presence. You just can’t do it all unless you want to sleep out in the woods 24/7.”

Even if an officer is present to observe a potential offender in the field, Cenci says, it can be difficult to make a surefire case unless the individual is actively observed committing a crime.

“You can walk around in the woods all day long with a gun. That’s not illegal no matter the season,” said Cenci, who added that a truck full of dogs out in the woods does not constitute illegal behavior either. 

“If I contact that person too soon they might just say they’re dog was getting some air. If he tells me to pound sand and doesn’t admit to anything and just tells me he was taking his dogs for some exercise, there is no ban on taking dogs into the woods. It’s just on using them on specific animals.”

Cenci says that the eyes and ears of the public are essential to helping WDFW enforcement know what’s going on behind their backs.

“In our business it is one part luck and it’s also many parts of skill and relationships with the community that contribute to any success that we have,” said Cenci. “I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen an illegal animal blown away right in front of me, decoys notwithstanding.”

Due to the extent of the Cowlitz County criminal poaching ring activities Cenci is at once eager to get the case to the prosecutor and hesitant to move forward too quickly for fear of bungling any of the necessary evidence. The fact that the crimes happened over such a broad period of time, for an array of species in multiple counties and two different states only serves to complicate matters.

“Our burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. Our intent is to prosecute those folks for the same set of circumstances. Not just for possession instead of the hunt,” said Censi, who was unable to provide a timetable for the next step in bringing the case to trial. “We’re anxious to get this off our plate. But these are people we want to see punished to the fullest extent of the law and in order to do that we’ve got to do our jobs right.”

Roadkill Salvage

In July 2016, it became legal in Washington to salvage the meat from roadkill critters, including deer and elk in most locations. The intent of the law is to prevent the spoilage and waste of otherwise good meat while allowing Washingtonians to provide food for their families through a combination of circumstantial grit, elbow grease and gristle. 

Previously, if a person struck or encountered a recently killed animal on the roadway they were required to leave it on the roadside. If the WDFW was able to respond in time, which was rare, the department would make an attempt to get the animal to a charity so that the meat could be utilized.

However, the vast majority of the time the meat was deemed to be spoiled and had to be discarded. Prior to the end of prohibition on roadkill salvage, Washington was one of just a handful of states that outlawed the practice.

Nearly a year after the new law took hold Mike Cenci, deputy chief of westside enforcement operations for the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife, is still unsure if the law change is working out entirely as it was intended.

“I think we’re still trying to assess the whole roadkill deer thing and elk thing. We’ve certainly had some investigations regarding people who possess deer and elk that died under suspicious circumstances,” said Cenci with a wary laugh. “And we’ve also noticed that there’s also been some attractants placed along a roadway that wouldn’t normally be there. You don’t’ see piles of lettuce and carrots and other garden vegetables placed neatly along a busy road on accident very often, but we have seen them now.”

Cenci says he sees the value in allowing legitimately killed animals to be salvaged by those who are willing to put in the work and admitted that the job of responding to roadkill incidents is simply too large of a burden for his already overtaxed staff to cover. 

He said the frequency of roadkill incidents in Eastern Washington alone would require a full-time effort to keep up with. Salvage of roadkill can be especially troublesome for state agencies due to the fact that there is often no exact timetable for when the collision occurred.

On the other hand, Cenci said that when officers from his department are able to quickly recover a poached animal they always attempt to get the carcass to an organization that can handle the processing and distribution of the meat. 

“If we have a poached animal and we’re seizing it we make every effort to get it to somebody who can use it,” said Cenci.

Still, Cenci harbors concern that some brazen citizens will not hesitate to strike a wild animal with a vehicle now that they know they are entitled to the quarry. The apparent baiting efforts are particularly troublesome to Cenci. 

“Is it out of control now? I’m not saying that, but we are keeping an eye on it. I think it’s still new enough that we can’t really give a good assessment,” noted Cenci. “It seems like a solution to a problem that seems to be working to a fair degree. I think at this point I would call the program a success.”

The only exception to the new roadside rule will be in Cowlitz, Wahkiakum and Clark counties. Those counties are home to sparse populations of the endangered Columbian white-tailed deer. As a result, no deer, white or black-tailed, may be salvaged in those counties.

Officials hoped that the exclusion of deer from the salvage list in the Columbian white-tail’s limited western range will eliminate the temptation for drivers to illegally bait, hit and harvest any of the endangered ungulates. 

Likewise, discharging a weapon from a vehicle or the roadside is still illegal in all of Washington. Only law enforcement officers and specially permitted state employees or contractors are allowed to dispatch injured animals near the roadway. Anyone who manages to salvage a deer or elk must contact the WDFW within 24 hours in order to obtain a salvage permit. 

Additional information regarding roadkill salvage can be found online at wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/game_salvaging/.