When two hunters saw three small elk lying dead in a clearing between two canyons north of Ellensburg last week, they weren’t quite sure what to think.
Tricia Singer said she and her husband, Brett, initially assumed a group of hunters would be returning to harvest the meat. It soon became clear they’d found the work of poachers responsible for illegally killing five elk — four yearlings and one full-grown cow.
State Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Roman Varyvoda discovered the elk with the help of the hunters on a hillside between Coleman and Schnebly canyons about 9 miles from Ellensburg. Sgt. Morgan Grant of the Yakima office said the department’s investigation into the Nov. 6 incident is still ongoing.
“The people that do this aren’t hunters. These people, they just have no morals or ethics,” Grant said.
Singer said she and her husband saw a beautiful sight earlier that morning as they watched from the main road while two herds of elk roamed between Cooke and Schnebly canyons. But when they saw a lone elk move awkwardly through the trees, they decided to drive over and then hike to the spot where they hoped to find it.
Instead, Tricia said they found an empty clearing, and just as they started to head back to their car, they took out their binoculars and spotted the elk. After two hours, they called the wildlife department and Varyvoda headed to the site from his post at Moses Lake.
Varyvoda is on leave until Nov. 23 and could not be reached for comment.
When Varyvoda arrived, Tricia said several hunters guided him to the hillside, where they found four yearlings spaced about 35 to 40 yards apart and a trail of blood leading to a full-grown cow.
She said another hunter harvested a cow that was shot in the hoof and believed to be caught in the crossfire, and they also found blood trails indicating the possibility of other wounded animals.
“It was one of those things that knocked the wind out of you,” said Singer, the vice president of the Northwest Chapter of Safari Club International. “As I’m assisting in that whole process (of cleaning the elk), I’m looking around and I’m watching these grown men tear up.”
Because the carcasses were still fresh, the hunters were able to salvage the meat. Singer said the wildlife department allowed them to take two of the yearlings home. Two of them hung up at the butcher weighed a combined 210 pounds, compared with 400 pounds for a full-grown elk she harvested two years ago.
Wildlife agents donated the rest of the meat to local food banks and a church, Grant and Singer said.
Under a spree poacher bill passed in 2011, the individual or people responsible could be charged with a Class C felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Criminals in these cases generally face civil penalties and often must repay the cost of the loss of elk, Grant said.
It’s possible the state could seize equipment, such as guns and vehicles. Licenses also could be revoked or suspended, although Grant said it’s too early to speculate on specific penalties without knowing how many people were involved.
To alert the public, Grant said the wildlife department sent information on the case to Northwest Sportsman magazine, which posted a blog with information on the case.
The Northwest Chapter of Safari Club International offered $1,000, and Conservation Northwest added $3,000 — the maximum amount it gives out for elk spree killings — for information that leads to a conviction.
“I cannot think of anything at the time I’ve been working on this that compares to this,” Conservation Northwest deputy communications manager Chase Gunnell said. “This is on an awful magnitude that I can’t remember seeing before.”
Grant has investigated a handful of similar incidents in his 34 years, typically by people frustrated by legal issues such as agricultural damage situations, he said. While many poaching incidents come from mistakes or failures to understand complex hunting regulations, it’s clear this case doesn’t fall into that category.
The wildlife department is offering 10 bonus points for special permit hunts to anyone providing information leading to a conviction. Singer remains optimistic that the investigation will be successful.
“There had to have been somebody that saw something,” Singer said. “There were a lot of hunters out and it was an open hillside.”
How you can help
Anyone with information about the killing of four elk northeast of Ellensburg is encouraged to call state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Poaching Hotline, 877-933-9847. Information can also be filed through the agency’s website, or texted to the wildlife department TIP Report at 847411.