LANSING - A bear-poaching incident in Manistee County has shed light on a continuing poaching problem throughout Michigan.
"A poacher is nothing more than a criminal. If someone goes into a department store and steals a blender, that would be the same thing as someone who goes into the wild and steals a deer," said Dean Molnar assistant chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources law enforcement division.
"They're a criminal. They're not ethical, licensed hunters. They're taking away from the public."
Hunting is an ethical sport that's used to manage resources, said Molnar, as well as a recreational sport and a critical management tool for wildlife biologists to maintain healthy animal populations.
Molnar said reported problems tend to stay at a consistent level most of the time, as in the spring with illegal fishing or a big spike in the fall for many game animals.
"A lot of people are trophy poachers-they want the big trophies or antlers," said Molnar.
During the fall hunting season, when there are more than 600,000 hunters in the woods, there is more opportunity for illegal takings, he said.
For example, he cited the recent illegal shooting of a black bear in Manistee County's Cleon Township.
The case attracted a lot of public and press attention because it is a big game species and such animals as black bear are more protected, said Lt. David Shaw, a DNR district law supervisor based in Cadillac.
The fact that the bear was a sow that had been photographed with three cubs raises a little more concern about the shooting, he said.
As winter comes, cubs typically follow the mother into a good, safe denning site, Shaw said, and now her cubs will be without her to guide them.
All animals are protected, regardless of their size, said Shaw, but when it comes to bear, elk and moose the larger animals poaching is more noticeable because there aren't as many of those species.
Molnar said game animals aren't the only natural resources taken illegally. For example, evergreen boughs are popular this time of year for wreaths and garlands, and there is a problem with people illegally gathering them up north.
"People seem to think that they are stealing from the DNR but that's not true. The resources of this state belong to the people of the state of Michigan - it's everybody's resource," said Molnar. "If someone goes in and takes something illegally be it out of season, doesn't have a license or in the middle of the night anything other than the legal method, they are nothing more than a criminal and stealing that resource."
There are already strict penalties for poaching. For instance, illegally killing a deer carries a minimum $200 fine, plus court costs and mandatory $1,000 restitution for the animal, said Molnar. On top of the fines, poachers lose hunting privileges for the year they are caught and for the next three years.
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, which would make those laws even stricter.
The bill has passed the Legislature and is going to Gov. Rick Snyder for signature. If approved, it would increase the amount poachers must pay the state in restitution for illegally taking large antlered white deer.
In addition, it would extend the current three-year hunting ban to five years for a first-time violators. Repeat offenders couldn't get a hunting license for 10 years.
According to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis, supporters of the measure argued that "although poachers might claim that they need the meat, they will pass up unantlered deer or deer with small antlers in order to stalk a big buck. In some cases, such a deer is legendary among local hunters, who might spend years pursuing the animal legally until it is taken down by a poacher."
Co-sponsors are Republican Sens. John Proos of St. Joseph; Howard Walker of Traverse City; Tom Casperson of Escanaba; Darwin Booher of Evart; and Rick Jones of Grand Ledge.
MUCC Executive Director Erin McDonough said, "People really look at regulations in place outside of the hunting area to see what number works as a deterrent, so people look at that and don't want to poach because they don't want that penalty.
"We were very focused on this bill because we thought the penalty was too low," McDonough said. "We have a license system in place for a reason to guarantee we have viable wildlife population for the future. Anybody doing illegal activities needs to be prosecuted."