Pendleton, Ore. — Three elk, three pronghorns, a mule deer, two turkeys and a bobcat round out a collection of animals illegally killed, tagged, processed or taxidermied in a case that spans multiple jurisdictions. However, the health threats to Oregon deer and elk populations may be of greater concern, according to wildlife authorities.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and incorrect herd management numbers are just two of the unintended consequences that can happen when people ignore wildlife laws. Cases like this threaten herds and confound biologists working to maintain healthy animals and stable populations according to Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Trooper Tom Juzeler.
Trooper Juzeler took the initial call to the Turn In Poachers (TIP) Line in Nov. of 2020. The caller suspected an individual camped with others in Umatilla County had placed someone else’s tag on a trophy bull elk he had harvested. When Trooper Juzeler began investigating the incident, it became clear that more than one individual was involved, that more than one hunting camp was involved, and that the activity expanded into Klamath County. Trooper Juzeler called Troopers in Klamath County and continued the investigation.
In Klamath County, Trooper Juzeler and his counterpart, Trooper Kameron Gordon, discovered that two people in the second camp had recently returned from a game farm in Idaho, with heads from legally harvested elk. However, the heads still had intact brain matter, which can transmit CWD. The investigation in Klamath County led Trooper Juzeler to a taxidermy shop where he found three pronghorn hides, a mule deer head and a bobcat, all lacking documentation that they were legally harvested. The taxidermist had neither a license nor an updated record book, both of which are required to conduct business in Oregon.
Carelessness in transporting elk from out of state, paired with multiple people lending and borrowing tags, and unlicensed taxidermy services exemplify the importance of wildlife laws. CWD, which is highly contagious and always fatal to deer and elk, is not known to exist in Oregon. For that reason, Oregon law prohibits hunters from bringing in heads or spinal columns of deer, elk, moose, or caribou from hunts in other states. Hunters can bring back meat if the spinal column has been removed but heads cannot be brought into Oregon unless they are a finished taxidermy mount or a skull cap with all meat and brain matter removed.
Disposing of all brain or spinal tissue before returning to Oregon prevents potential contagious brain and spinal tissue from spreading the disease to Oregon. Improperly disposed of carcasses contaminate the soil leading to infected deer grazing in the area according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Wolfer. Wolfer, who is the acting game program manager for the agency, is frustrated and fearful of how this case could have gone wrong.
“CWD is one of the greatest threats there is for deer and elk in Oregon,” he said. “Wildlife managers have worked hard to keep it out of our state but we could get it simply by a hunter bringing in an infected carcass and disposing of the brain and spinal tissue in the environment.”
CWD is a neurological disease affecting deer, elk, and moose. It is not caused not by a conventional virus or bacterium but by an abnormal protein that replaces normal protein in brain tissue. The highly contagious disease causes animals’ brains to deteriorate and results in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and eventually death.
CWD can be transmitted from an infected animal by saliva, blood, urine or feces and is passed to an uninfected animal through the ingestion of the microscopic prion protein. CWD prions are nearly impossible to inactivate and can survive UV light, boiling, freezing, and chemical treatment. Commercial incineration of all contaminated materials is the only sure way to neutralize the disease, according to Wolfer, and there is no cure, vaccine, or treatment for removing CWD once it enters a population of animals.
“Any deer that gets CWD dies from it, and it can spread to any deer or elk that comes in contact with it,” Wolfer said.
It can also spread through taxidermy methods. For instance, one method of creating a “European mount,” which is a bright white skull and antlers, is to place the head in a container of beetles. The beetles eat and digest all tissue, giving the skull a natural look. If the animal had CWD, then the beetles would pass the infective prion through their feces and could provide a source of transmission to a deer or elk via soil contaminated indirectly by the beetle excrement.
Practicing taxidermy without state authority or oversight can lead to unintended consequences like disease introduction. It can also mask hunting practices that can throw off herd management numbers.
Biologists determine the number of tags to issue for hunt units using a formula that considers the number of animals in the area, how many animals the area can support, and the likelihood of hunters successfully filling their tags. The hunter success rate is another data compilation that considers hunter proficiency based on their experience and weapon choice. When excellent hunters kill multiple animals and then tag them with less-successful hunters’ tags, the formula becomes skewed. This leads to more animals being taken in a unit than planned, and biologists may need to compensate the following year by issuing fewer tags, according to Wolfer.
“Just because a person has a tag, doesn’t give them the right to have it filled by someone else,” Wolfer said, “And it possibly deprives another hunter of filling their tag.”
Stop Poaching Campaign coordinator Yvonne Shaw agrees.
“Poachers remove natural resources enjoyed by all Oregonians,” she said. “When people break the rules to take additional animals, it means a loss of opportunity for legal hunters as well as other outdoor recreationists hoping to encounter wildlife.”
Trooper Juzeler issued more than a dozen citations for offenses including borrowing and lending tags, hunting without tags, illegally taking bull elk, failure to validate big game tags, exceeding the bag limit of game birds, illegally taking a turkey, no fur takers license, and counseling or aiding in a wildlife offense. Trooper Gordon issued two warnings for importing a cervid carcass from a state with CWD. And he issued multiple citations and warnings for unlawful possession of antelope, mule deer and bobcat.
The Stop Poaching Campaign educates the public on how to recognize and report poaching. This campaign is a collaboration among hunters, conservationists, land owners and recreationists. Our goal is to increase reporting of wildlife crimes through the TIP Line, increase detection by increasing the number of OSP Fish and Wildlife Troopers and increase prosecution. This campaign helps to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitat for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Contact campaign coordinator Yvonne Shaw for more information. Yvonne.L.Shaw@state.or.us.