'Receipts, Hair, Bullet Fragments & Rumors'
Resolving the rash of elk poaching in Pigeon River
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 8, 2020
There were eight elk killed in poaching cases in the Pigeon River State Forest this season. 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.
It’s been an eventful season in the Pigeon River Country – eight dead elk, all killed without permits. That may not make 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,” said 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.
THE HUNT IS ON
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 said, 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 said. “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.”
HYPED ELK ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Michigan’s elk herd is carefully managed so that it can thrive and at the same time stay within a limited area. The DNR treats the herd as if it is penned into the Pigeon River State Forest, an area roughly bordered on the west by I-75 from Vanderbilt to Indian River, on the north by M-66 to Onaway, on the east by M-33 to Atlanta and on the south back over to I-75, with an area in the corner around Gaylord cut out of the range.
The DNR uses the annual elk hunt as a means to keep the animals within this imaginary barrier. To keep the herd within the range healthy and thriving, the agency strives to limit poaching and prevent the spread of disease.
The eight poaching deaths this year is higher than average, but it’s not a threat to the herd, Gorno said. Gorno said elk poaching cases have gotten more attention this year because news about them took off on social media.
“This year is pretty bad mainly because social media has hyped it up, but it’s really not unusual as far as numbers,” he said. “We’re not having an epidemic of elk poaching. It’s a little high this year, but nothing way out of the ordinary.”
Poaching, at current numbers, is not a significant threat to the size of the size of the herd. Brian Mastenbrook, DNR wildlife field operations manager in Gaylord, said an optimal herd size is considered to be between 500 and 900 animals. The population today is estimated to be between 900 and 1,300. So far, poaching has claimed fewer animals than are lost on average each year to car-elk crashes, around 10.
The annual elk hunt is used to keep the population from getting too large and needing to roam further afield to search for food.
“We want to keep them in (the Pigeon River Country) and we want to keep the numbers manageable and healthy, and if they get too big, they end up going out into the agricultural areas and causing damage,” Gorno said. “It’s a balancing and it’s closely managed.”
COMMUNITIES EMBRACE THE HERD
There was a time when poaching threatened the very existence of the elk herd.
Elk are native to Michigan, but overhunting killed them off by 1875. In 1918, seven elk were relocated from the West and released near Wolverine. The offspring of those elk grew to a population of 1,500 by the early 1960s.
In the early days, the residents of northern Michigan were ambivalent about the reintroduction of these forest beasts. Farmers did not like them. The opportunity to spot a group of elk in the wild was not widely considered a tourist attraction.
Hunting elk was allowed beginning in 1964 or 1965, but at the same time, the poaching of elk was rampant, and cases in those days were not investigated as rigorously as they are today. By 1975, the elk herd had been decimated. There were just around 200 animals left in Michigan.
At the same time, by the late 1970s, public opinion about the elk herd shifted, perhaps spurred by the prospect of the elk vanishing from Michigan for a second time.
Hunting was restricted. Wildlife officers cracked down on poachers. And popular opinion changed so that many area residents came to see the elk herd as an asset.
While conflict with farmers increased with the size of the elk herd, over the years the elk have become a pillar of the local economy in their own right, drawing thousands of tourists each year who come to the state forest in Otsego, Cheboygan and Montmorency counties for the chance to view elk in the wild.
Local pride in the elk herd is a great deterrent to poaching, Gorno said, because it’s made poaching socially unacceptable and people more likely to tip off authorities if they have information about a case.
“What kind of changed was that people around here … took stock in this elk herd. And after the poaching everybody said, ‘Wait, we want these to flourish,’” Gorno said. “So, all these communities, Atlanta and Vanderbilt and all these small communities, embraced the elk herd. They get mad when somebody poaches an elk. They know who did and who didn’t, some of the times, so they discourage it.”
THE GOLDEN TICKET
For some Michigan residents, the chance to lawfully hunt an elk is a life-long dream.
It’s one that few get a chance to realize.
In 2019, for instance, just 200 elk tags were awarded to hunters in a lottery. The coveted licenses to hunt elk are literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunities (once a person wins a bull elk tag, they cannot enter the lottery again) and tens of thousands of people enter each year.
“It is like a golden ticket here in Michigan,” Gorno said. “Every year we give out maybe 140, maybe 200 permits, and there’s 50,000 people applying for them. It’s really a big thing when you get an elk permit.”
The annual hunts are broken into two parts – an early hunt that takes place on several days over late August and September and a late hunt that takes place in December. The hunts are designed to limit elk herd migration. The early hunt takes place on the southern boundaries of the state forest where the parkland meets farms.
“We want people to take them out of there, because they’re causing damage and conflict,” Gorno said.
On the eve of the elk hunt, each hunter is required to attend an orientation meeting. The DNR hosts these at township halls across the area. The hunters learn about the rules they are expected to follow, such as staying off private property and not carrying loaded guns in a vehicle.
Perhaps the most important rule that’s covered in orientation is about the restraint hunters must have when they encounter a group of elk – they get one shot to get their kill because otherwise, if they fire their rifle more than once, the chance of shooting two elk is too high.
“They don’t run when you shoot, they just stand there. They’re not like a deer; they’re not like another wild animal. These things are different,” Gorno said. “You shoot and these things just stand there. And there’s four or five or eight or 20 standing around. And they lose track of which one they shot, and they’ll shoot another one. We kind of drill it into their head: don’t do that. And unfortunately, every hunt, something happens.”
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 said 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 said. “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 said that despite scant evidence, he is hopeful that some of those cases will be solved.
Gorno said 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 said.
Gorno said he is unaware of a theme that connects the unsolved cases. The motive could stem from resentment over a state-imposed baiting ban, dislike of the government or something else.
“We don’t know whether people are just shooting them to spite the DNR or to spite the government, who knows? Or they’re just kids joy riding,” Gorno said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.”
What the crimes have in common this year is that in each case, the carcass was left behind.
UNDERTAKING AN INVESTIGATION
When an elk is found shot dead in a field, it may not appear that there’s much for an investigator to go on, but Gorno said a crime scene can leave a surprisingly large number of clues.
When an animal is reported deceased under suspicious circumstances, a team of DNR investigators is assembled to look at the case.
First, they conduct a field necropsy in an effort to determine the cause, manner and time of death. That enables them to carefully put together a reconstruction of the crime scene: Where was the animal when it was shot? Where was the shooter? What did the animal do after it was shot?
The carcass is stripped down; the bullet path is determined; the bullet is sent to a state police crime lab for ballistic tests.
Investigators comb the area searching for clues. Footprints in snow or dirt near the scene are photographed and measured. They look for tread marks from trucks. They document everything they find.
If the kill is fresh enough, once the crime scene is processed the carcass may be donated to a food bank, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
“Normally, it’s been too long and the meat’s not salvageable,” Gorno said. “We love to salvage it and to get it to someone who can use it. But normally that doesn’t happen because it’s a day or two or three before people find it.”
Collecting evidence to understand what happened is the priority, however, he said.
“There’s lots of evidence that’s left,” Gorno said. “First of all, there’s a bullet left in the animal; second of all, there’s tire tracks and boot tracks and witnesses and all kinds of different things that we have to our benefit that help us.”
POACHING COLD CASES
Cases can take months or years to develop.
In one case, Gorno said someone shot a bull elk, butchered it, took the meat and then set out to dispose of the bones and the rest of the remains throughout the region.
“The poacher killed the elk and then butchered it up himself and then discarded parts throughout the area in different parts, so we started finding elk parts all over,” Gorno said.
At one location where parts were dumped in a river, the box used to carry them had been discarded nearby. Inside the box, investigators found a gift receipt from a downstate store. They were able to learn the name of the redeemer of the receipt from the store, and that woman led investigators to one of her relatives who turned out to be the poacher.
In another case, a tenacious officer found an unusual boot print at a poaching scene and he refused to let it go.
“The officer said, ‘Boy, that’s kind of a unique print,’ and he just started pushing more and more, so just on a boot print that was at the scene, three years later he noticed somebody with the same type of boot prints who was out hunting deer, he did an interview and someone confessed to shooting that elk three years later,” Gorno said.
That officer, Lt. Joe Molnar, said he couldn’t remember whether it was two or three years between the crime and the arrest, but he said he remembers finding a unique boot track frozen in the mud. Molnar, who works in the Traverse City DNR office today, said he also sent the bullet to the state police crime lab and they were able to tell him what kind of rifle was used. He also had tread marks from the vehicle that likely drove the shooter away from the scene.
Molnar said he went back to the same spot the next year looking for a deer hunter with those strange boots, that particular rifle and the vehicle that made those tread marks, but he had no luck.
It was the next season or the season after that when, at the same location, he spotted someone who matched what he was looking for and he stopped their vehicle.
After some questioning, the man confessed to killing the elk and he was ultimately convicted of poaching, Molnar said.
“Any case of poaching, we take very seriously,” Molnar said. “Sometimes it might take two or three years to solve a case. Our officers are passionate for working these cases.”
‘ELIMINATING THOSE COWS FOR A REASON’
Elk hunt guide Jennifer Drake was the first female hunting guide in Michigan when she registered five years ago.
She said that she and other hunting guides find the poaching cases to be very upsetting. She said most hunters strive to follow the rules.
“I believe that there’s a majority that do follow the rules; there’s always the slim few that aren’t going to,” she said. “We can’t let the ones that don’t destroy it for those of us that do.”
Drake, who lives in Afton, said she finds it interesting that in the five unsolved elk death cases this year, the carcass was left behind to rot in each instance. She said that tells her something about the people who shot them.
“In my honest opinion, I think because they were shot the way they were and left, and no meat was taken, if that really was the case and they were just left like that, it was probably someone who just doesn’t want them there,” Drake said.
She said the fact that three cow elk were taken at once is disturbing and indicates that someone really wanted to affect the elk population – each of those cow elk might have produced one offspring per year for the next 10 years. That killing, she said, represents perhaps 30 elk over a decade.
“They were somebody that was eliminating those cows for a reason,” she said.
James Poe, an avid outdoorsman and hunter who moved to northern Michigan six years ago from metro Detroit so that he could be closer to the woods, has a different theory about what happened to the poached elk.
The Lewiston resident said he believes deer hunters could be responsible, he said, because he knows that a small minority of deer hunters don’t act responsibly. They come Up North to hunt, they don’t really know what they are doing, and they drink too much. He believes addled deer hunters may have shot the elk by mistake.
“Alcohol and hunting don’t mix, but a lot of these guys come up here for deer camp, not necessarily to hunt, but to get away from their wives and drink,” Poe said. “Personally, I think that’s what it is.”