As he drove along Resthaven Road on patrol in Yakima County on Friday, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Cody Watts spotted what looked like a familiar face at Harlan Landing.
If his assumption was correct, he knew there wouldn't be much time to catch the man he'd already charged twice for illegally fishing in the Yakima River without a license during the closed season. This time, the man saw Watts coming and managed to get away.
Declining populations of fish and big game animals and rising demand for a limited number of opportunities add to the importance of catching poachers, defined as anyone who kills game animals or fish without following the state's strict regulations. Better technology and cooperation provide more tools to combat the problem, but it continues to be a concern and source of ire for many hunters.
"It just takes away from the people who do it right every time," said Trevor Dallman, a longtime hunter and Selah High graduate. "It's kind of cheating in a way, really."
Scott McCorquodale, the region's wildlife program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it's impossible to tell just how much poaching occurs, since much of it goes undetected.
McCorquodale said poached animals count toward "unknown mortality" in annual counts with weather, old age and predation. That number factors into how many hunters receive tags for each season.
Some poachers sell animals on the black market and some want food or valuable trophies, while others kill for unknown motivations and leave the carcasses to rot.
Such an incident left a horrifying scene of five dead elk — four yearlings and a cow — north of Ellensburg in early November 2016. The Wildlife Department's enforcement captain for south central Washington, Bob Weaver, said they never got any leads for the case.
But officers across the state have found success combating poaching, most notably last year in Southwest Washington and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where seven residents face nearly 200 charges in Skamania County court for a case that first came under investigation in Oregon. The wildlife department also announced in February that a Wapato man pleaded guilty to five counts of criminal attempt — unlawful trafficking.
Statewide investigative unit Capt. Paul Golden said that case began with an investigation into a group of poachers back in 2010-11. Detectives met the suspect in the Yakima Kmart parking lot in November 2013 and bought two bull elk for $400, as well as five deer for $390 on two other occasions that month before charges were filed in 2016.
The delay and a month-long jail sentence drew complaints, but Golden said plea deals for lesser sentences aren't uncommon and stem partly from a lack of prosecutors. Recent retirements left a similar problem for the Wildlife Department in this region, where Weaver has only one of three officer positions filled in Yakima County, and two more vacancies out of four positions in the Tri-Cities.
Only one of seven detectives works on the east side. Golden said most are centered around Puget Sound and commercial fishing trafficking. Limited resources make cooperation from hunters and local sheriff's departments essential for responding to incidents.
Raising awareness while teaching hunters and outdoors enthusiasts how to recognize and report crimes is the primary focus of Eyes in the Woods, a nonprofit started in 1995. State training coordinator Lee Davis said the group teaches 1,500 people per year in free classes across the state, including one scheduled for April 30 at Oak Creek Wildlife Area.
Their program, Crime Observation Reporting Training, or CORT, presents the basic steps of how to properly report incidents. Like Myers and Weaver, Davis advises people to always report anything unusual, even if they're not sure whether it's illegal.
"We do get a little frustrated because the penalties that are in place for a lot of poaching and wildlife crimes do seem to be very lenient," Davis said. "The only way we're ever going to get those increased is if we apply public pressure to our legislators."
Weaver and Kittitas County Undersheriff Clay Myers said the prevalence of cellphones has helped to increase the odds of catching illegal hunters before they can get away.
Weaver said recently that hunters gave officers the exact location they needed to catch poachers who shot a two-point deer. Those tipsters can earn up to $500 and 10 bonus points for future hunting seasons by calling in tips.
Golden cautioned new technologies can cause new problems as well.
"In a lot of ways, technology's probably increased opportunity to traffic," he said. "But it also does leave records and leaves footprints for us to investigate, so that's helped."
The Mule Deer Foundation's state chair, Rachel Voss, took pride in her organization's efforts to help punish poaching with a donation of 13 Garmin Rino GPS navigation devices with a built-in two-way radio to the Wildlife Department last summer. Weaver said the devices helped almost right away with a closed-season mountain goat case. They give officers a way to go back and look at aerial-type photos when documenting a case.
Virtually all wildlife can be sold on the black market, and Myers said more hunters inevitably means more poaching. He said it seems like waterfowl have been popular targets in recent years, and McCorquodale noted a nationwide demand for black bear gallbladders occasionally causes problems in Washington.
Those kinds of trends, along with large-scale operations, tend to draw most of the attention from Golden and his investigators. Officers respond to any sort of potential illegal actions, and although McCorquodale said intent matters significantly in how cases are handled, Weaver believes responsible hunters should generally be able to avoid poaching.
"Poaching is oftentimes an opportunistic thing," Weaver said. "People do make mistakes at times, but most of the time they're avoidable mistakes."