Oak Creek antler poachers caught on tape

NACHES -- Outlaw shed hunters can no longer depend on the dark of night.

From now on, the night will have eyes.

Armed with the kind of high-tech surveillance equipment usually associated with international espionage or cinematic whimsy, the managers at Oak Creek Wildlife Area and other state-managed lands are in a game of "gotcha" with trespassers looking for shed antlers.

And they're getting them, too -- on film, with time and date on every frame.

"I've got photos of violators -- hikers, ATVers, Jeepers, going by our hidden cameras," said Oak Creek manager John McGowan, who was able to use an extensive network of hidden cameras during the closure this year.

The $11,000 network of night-vision, motion-detecting cameras was provided this spring by Eyes in the Woods, an Olympia-based watchdog organization supporting the state wildlife department in catching or dissuading poachers and other law-breakers on wildlife land. And it wasn't long after the cameras were installed that they began producing dividends.

"Less than 24 hours later, here's somebody walking right by the camera, shed strapped to his back," McGowan said.

The problem -- with the exception of one four-wheeler whose license plate was captured clearly on film -- is in identifying the individuals captured on film.

"What we want is for the local community to go, 'Hey, these are the guys who are stealing from us,' " McGowan said.

For years, a steady stream of antler-antsy scofflaws have ignored the March-April closure instituted at Oak Creek and several other wildlife areas to prevent disturbance to wintering elk around the various feeding stations.

"It's a statewide problem," said Tony Wells, land access director for Eyes in the Woods. "It's happening more and more as time goes on. The reason we're doing it is for the conservation side of the issue -- (the shed hunters) are stressing the animals at the point when they're at the weakest point in their cycle."

That has been particularly frustrating for McGowan, because of both of the potentially fatal harassment of winter-weakened elk and the unfairness to the shed hunters who wait patiently for the annual May 1 shed-hunting opener.

"All the legal folks go out there and find nothing, and it's these scumbags who are stealing from them," McGowan said. "The sheriff's department told us to put (the photos) out there, because somebody will know them."

The cameras were to be taken down before Friday's official opening day for shed-hunting at Oak Creek.

Shed hunters who didn't get lucky Friday can still come back today for Oak Creek's first-ever shed antler auction, by which enforcement officers hope to have the identity of the ones who were captured on film trying to get a jump on everybody else.

Anyone with a tip as to the possible identity of people in the photographs are urged to call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's confidential poaching hotline at 877-933-9847 (877-WDFW-TIP).

The violators are subject to a substantial fine for unlawful use of state wildlife lands, including the failure to obey the posted signs declaring the closure. WDFW enforcement Capt. Rich Mann said the department could also potentially seize the sheds taken by the trespasser.

"In and of themselves, (sheds) are not illegal to possess," Mann said. "The illegal act is going into the winter closure and getting them."

By this time next week, Eyes in the Woods volunteers will be setting up their surveillance camera system in the Olympic Peninsula, where WDFW enforcement staffers hope to capture off-road drivers going around gates to access closed roads. But next spring, the cameras will be back in place at Oak Creek.

"This will play a vital role as a deterrent," Wells said. "It's a tool for the enforcement, not a cure-all for all the issues."