“The citizens here in Michigan pick up the phone and give us a call and let us know what’s going on,’’ said Lt. Gerald Thayer of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of our poaching cases are because people have used the Report All Poaching hotline.’’
The state’s poaching hotline, created in 1980, logged 36,790 calls last year, up nearly 8 percent from 2014.
One of those calls led investigators to a home near Sand Lake in northern Kent County, where investigators found evidence that a father and his teenage son illegally shot several bucks. The son was sentenced to jail and his father was sent to prison. Investigators say they illegally killed 11 white-tailed deer over a two-month period.
Kent County Circuit Judge Mark A. Trusock, himself a hunter, didn’t mince words when 47-year-old Charles Lonnie Harger Jr. appeared for sentencing earlier this fall.
“You’re doing this with your son? So what are you teaching your son to do — to go out and violate all the laws?” Trusock said to Harger. “It’s people like you that give sportsmen in the state of Michigan a bad name.”
Trusock sentenced Harger to between 14 months and five years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm stemming from the poaching case. Prior felony convictions precluded the Nelson Township man from having a firearm. The judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail for game violations, but credited him for time already served.
Harger also took a hit in the pocketbook. Trusock ordered that he pay $20,000 in restitution to the state; the amount is to be split between father and son, according to court records.
The financial hit, Thayer said, is a useful tool in poaching prosecutions.
“It used to be a cat and mouse game between us and the poachers,’’ Thayer said. “And now it’s just too expensive to be playing that kind of game.’’
As part of his conviction, Harger forfeited a compound bow and six rifles, including a .30-06-caliber Remington authorities say was used to kill deer from a motor vehicle.
His son, 18-year-old Nathan Robert Harger, was convicted of game violations. He was sentenced to five days in jail and placed on probation for one year. He has since been released from the Kent County Jail.
The investigation got underway in December 2015 after DNR officials received a poaching complaint. The caller said several deer were taken illegally, including a buck that was photographed hanging from a rope. The caller reported seeing six antlered deer heads on the floor of an outbuilding and a 9-point buck hanging from the ceiling two days before the 2015 firearm deer season began, court records show.
Father and son admitted to taking the deer, court records show. Charles Harger told a conservation officer that he shot deer from a vehicle using a .30-06-caliber rifle, according to court records.
Thayer said deer poachers are changing their tactics; they’re less inclined to use spotlights to locate deer on public lands at night.
“We still have a lot of problem areas, but it’s changed,’’ the DNR officer said. “In the good old days, us conservation officers were extremely busy at nighttime. The standard procedure back in the day was to take your spotlight out, shine deer and shoot them at night. And we ran around with our heads chopped off chasing these guys.
“The fines and costs were lower — they’d lose their firearm and spotlight and maybe get a $100 fine. That was all that happened.’’
Not anymore. Since 1994, illegally taking a deer is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and loss of hunting privileges for three years. Violators can also be ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution for every deer taken.
Those targeting trophy bucks face an even stiffer hit under a 2014 anti-poaching law. The progressive penalty system adds an additional $500 for each point on a buck with 8 to 10 points. For bucks with 11 or more points, it’s $750. Prior to the change, the maximum restitution allowed for antlered deer was $1,000.
“Once stricter regulations were instituted and we started getting reimbursement for the deer, we started to see a change,’’ Thayer said. “So they’re a little more secretive, a little smarter about how they operate.’’
Thayer said poachers are relying on crossbows and lighting that is less obvious than a spotlight. Even with improved tactics, they’re not necessarily out of the woods, he said.
“People eventually get fed up and report them,’’ he said. “It’s really not worth the risk.’’