Investigation into massive Washington poaching operation continues


Ten people from Cowlitz County are under investigation after illegal killing sprees of more than a hundred animals including bears, deer and cougars.

It’s an investigation that spans years and crosses state lines.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife officers say sometimes people violate hunting laws by mistake. In this case, though, they believe a group of people living in Cowlitz County killed for the thrill and recorded those kills.

That graphic video and photo evidence is now at the center of the investigation. The disturbing photos unearthed in the investigation are unlike any officials say they have ever seen and show bears mauled by dogs, deer beheaded and more animals illegally hunted and slaughtered.

Using hounds to hunt bears is illegal in both Washington and Oregon.

“I consider it a killing spree,” Deputy Chief Mike Cenci of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said. “I’m completely disgusted. These people are wholesale natural resource murderers.”

It all began last winter when Oregon State Troopers found headless bucks on numerous trails. They set up hidden cameras to catch the people responsible, eventually capturing two men in action.

“Most people, when they kill an animal, there’s respect for everything. They take the hide, they take the meat and there’s something that’s respectful about it,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 5 Captain Jeff Wickersham explained. “In this case, it’s all about the thrill. They’re going out there and killing to kill.”

Troopers say they discovered 26 deer heads at the homes of the men. Looking through the suspects’ phones, investigators exposed a mountain of photo and video evidence that they say pointed to a complex web of poachers working together and living in Cowlitz County.

“It just kept growing,” Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Lieutenant Ryan Howell said. “The offenses, not only did they occur in The Dalles, they were all over the state of Oregon and Washington. This was something that was going on a long time, and something that would continue if we didn’t loop in Washington.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this and neither have any of the officers or detectives on this case,” Wickersham said. “None of us have ever seen anything to a scale like this.”

RELATED STORY: Eastern Oregon man arrested in elk poaching case with 25 carcasses

Fish and wildlife officers mobilized from all over Washington to serve warrants at homes in Cowlitz County back in March. Many officers, a third of the state’s entire force, searched those properties for more evidence in their investigation.

The officers involved with the case were shocked by what they saw from those they were investigating.

“These individuals involved with this case are what I would term the worst of the worst,” Wickersham said.

“Some of these people, you have to wonder what the next step is for them,” Cenci added. “Disrespect for the law is one thing. When you see how they disrespect the animals themselves, that’s not hunting.”

Investigators believe the group killed some 30 bears based on phone evidence alone, along with dozens of deer, elk and wildcats, too.

Beyond violating hundreds of licensing and tagging violations in two states, they believe the group is maliciously wasting animals.

RELATED STORY: Police searching for poacher who cut off bald eagle's talons on S. Oregon coast

Some of the officers believe the reason that such heinous actions were able to go on for as long as they did is that fewer officers are out on patrol.

“I’m absolutely convinced one of the reasons these folks were able to poach for so long undetected was because we have such a serious lack of presence out there,” Cenci said.

MORE: Fish and Wildlife officers say the public is key to catching illegal hunters

That is a difficult reality for WDFW to face with the looming threat of budget cuts. Still, officers fight for the resources they’re determined to protect.

In all, WDFW officers served more than 20 different search warrants connected to this investigation. Because charges have yet to be filed, they’re not releasing the names of those 10 people they believe to be involved, though WDFW investigators did tell FOX 12 that several in the group have previous convictions for big game hunting violations.

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