Hutchinson Deer poachers looking for money or bragging rights are killing thousands of deer illegally across the state, Kansas wildlife officials say.
"It's a big issue," said Sam Allred, a natural resources officer with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "These people want the big racks they can sell or put on the wall and brag about."
Allred said he believes most poachers are in it for the money, given that the biggest deer racks can sell for thousands of dollars.
Earlier this month, a rural Clay County man was stabbed after he caught poachers with a deer they had killed on his property. And last spring, a Butler County man who was selling deer racks or exchanging them for guns was prosecuted for poaching after officials found more than 60 deer racks and 100 turkey beards at his home.
Kansas convicted 91 poachers for trespassing while hunting in 2004. But one study estimates that for the 77,000 deer taken legally in Kansas, poachers kill almost as many illegally.
"For every 20 we find, there are 100 we probably don't know about," said Mark Rankin, assistant director of law enforcement for the wildlife department.
Poachers find willing buyers at sporting goods stores, who resell the deer racks or put them up in their businesses. Others are sold through word of mouth and other markets.
"There's a market for the larger deer racks, for people to mount and put on their walls," Rankin said. "If it is a trophy record book class, you could be looking at $10,000 to $12,000."
Rankin said the department's ability to fight the problem is hampered by limited funds and staffing. The state has only 63 field officers for its 105 counties.
Wildlife officer Phillip Kirkland, of St. John, said part of the problem is that penalties aren't as stiff as in other states, where poachers could be fined thousands of dollars. And sometimes, county attorneys will dismiss cases or file lesser charges.
"The mindset has been these professional deer criminals are just harmless good ole boys poaching a deer or two over the limit - boys being boys," said Dan Ward, executive director of the Kansas Wildlife Federation. "There isn't an awareness that this is a way for organized crime to come into Kansas."
During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed legislation toughening some of the penalties. One change allows poachers only one diversion, compared to an unlimited number before.
Another law adds increasing fines for each conviction. If prosecuted, first offenders would be fined a minimum of $500. The fifth offense would get a minimum $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.
The state wildlife department is a member of the Wildlife Violator Compact, to which 20 other states also belong. Anyone who has had hunting or fishing privileges revoked or suspended in one state cannot hunt or fish in another member state.