(This feature is an update to our investigation of teen poaching in the United States. We’ve covered it since 2017 and believe it is a topic that needs addressed nationally-yet no one else is covering it other than local coverage of individual events. This investigation will continue into 2023. If you have information that could help our investigation email [email protected])
Dolphins are one of America’s most beloved animals.
From “Flipper” thrilling families on television in the 1960s to modern-day dolphin encounters at aquariums and resorts, the love affair families have with dolphins is a strong one.
So, when game wardens in Orange County, TX, found a dead dolphin impaled by a fishing arrow, it sent shockwaves across national media outlets.
A couple of days after the incident, I spoke with the warden on the case. He revealed the type of fishing broadhead used in the incident was only sold at one location in the region, a popular archery shop.
“That has narrowed down our search. We’ll find out who did this,” he said.
Officials did not expect that the perpetrators were two teenage brothers who, while bowfishing, came across a young dolphin that had wandered into freshwater.
So instead of enjoying seeing the beautiful, protected marine mammal and reporting it was in an unusual area, they killed it.
This happened a few miles from my home in 2015 and opened my eyes to a problem few in our industry have discussed.
In my opinion, America has a teen poaching crisis, and we need to address it now.
Killing Cranes and Eagles
Federal officials charged a teen from Jefferson County just 30 miles away for killing two whooping cranes less than a year after the dolphin incident.
A judge ordered the 19-year-old to pay $26,000 in restitution, barred him from owning or possessing firearms or ammunition, and prohibited him from hunting or fishing in the U.S.
He also got 200 hours of community service.
Shortly after this made headlines, I asked a Galveston County game warden if she had noticed any trends in-game and fish violations among teenagers.
The answer blew me away.
“Yes, they need to stop killing our eagles.”
Take, for example, a 17-year-old Harris County, TX boy who shot a bald eagle near White Oak Bayou. It was one of a pair that actively nested in the area for several years.
The most heinous instance came from the Pacific Northwest.
Washington Fish and Wildlife wardens said a sheriff’s department officer found evidence of teens purposely hunting for and poaching eagles.
“Officer Bolton and the deputy searched the area for downed wildlife and soon discovered a relatively fresh doe deer on the hillside near where the suspects had parked. Four older deer carcasses in various stages of decomposition were found in the same location. The officers learned that one of the young men shot the doe the night before by using a high-powered spotlight,” police wrote in a Facebook post.
“The animal was then placed near the other carcasses to bait in and shoot eagles.”
That’s not an incident of an impulsive act of game law violations.
That’s a calculated effort that involves multiple poaching incidents to purposely kill eagles, most likely for the black-market trade in their claws and feathers.
Over the last five years, numerous other incidents involving teens killing eagles have occurred around the country.
Deer Smuggling and Massacres
Florida officials in 2017 charged an 18-year-old and a 23-year-old with capturing, harassing, and harming three endangered Key deer, the smallest subspecies of whitetail.
According to a report at Local10.com, the 18-year-old said he lured three of them in with food, restrained them, and put them in the car “in a plan to take pictures with them.”
Conservation officers euthanized the three deer due to broken bones.
An article at gohunt.com details two high school-aged males guilty of poaching ten mule deer in McCone County, Montana in 2018.
“According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), the deer were killed with “a shotgun using loads typically used for pheasants.”
All of the deer were on a two-mile stretch near road 528 in northern McCone County.”
Not to be outdone, four Pennsylvania teenagers in 2020 went on a whitetail poaching spree that one wildlife officer called one of the most disturbing incidents he has observed.
Two 17-year-olds and one boy aged 16 killed at least 30 deer by spotlighting with a headlamp or their car lights, exiting the vehicle in the deer-rich area, and opening fire. Officials said they probably wounded many more deer than could not be accounted for in the area.
“It was almost like a video game for them. They did it because they were bored,” said Clint Deniker, a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, told the Sharon Herald.
“There is no telling how many deer were killed or wounded,” Deniker said, adding he accounted for at least 30.
Another 2020 incident, this time in Wisconsin, involved multiple teens over the course of a month, killing 40 whitetails and one horse. All of them were left to rot.
And there are numerous other incidents involving dozens of deer and other game killed in similar sprees by teens all around the nation.
What Is Going On?
This is not an indictment of teens.
It is not one of those rants we often hear in our culture like, “The kids these days are rotten.”
I dedicate much of my life to working with teens. I believe in them and think there are things about the current crop of teens that shows incredible promise for our future.
But this teen poaching thing has to be addressed.
And it has to start with an admission.
Most, if not all, of these teens, came from hunting families. While we as hunters rightfully denote that poaching and hunting are radically different practices, these kids are familiar with game firearms and in several instances, were engaged in legal hunting activities when an opportunity to poach came along.
That means somewhere down the line, we have to as a hunting community talk about this issue and find ways to engage it with them directly.
But we need to ask some questions first.
How much does parental influence play into this? There is no question some of these cases involve a long family line of game law violators.
A 2019 case from Alaska is a prime example as a father and his 17-year-old son killed a mother black bear and her two babies in a den.
What they didn’t realize was that the bear had a GPS collar and remote camera researchers were using to monitor their hibernation habits, so they got busted in short order.
A father who has raised his son or daughter to go to the level of killing baby bears in a den shows authority figures can play a significant role in influencing teen poaching, even at the most insidious level.
The following are other factors that need to be examined.
Social Media Notoriety: In our culture, some of the most famous people are now not those who have actually accomplished anything but those who have broken laws or done other immoral things and published them on social media.
Is there a link here between social media celebrity and teen poaching?
Texas officials solved a 2020 Texas case because the teen that poached a deer that was well-known in an off-limits to hunting community pasture bragged about it on Facebook. Officials believe the Pennsylvania teen deer massacre was communicated behind the scenes through Snapchat.
The Power of Suggestion: Unfortunately, social media and traditional outdoor media outlets have been a place for dark sentiment regarding wildlife. While we can agree that much of the “green” movement has little to do with protecting the environment, some of the rhetoric railing against is quite dark and is hauntingly similar to things we see play out in some of these teen cases.
A few years back, I encountered several people who used social media and at least one traditional outdoors media program to suggest shooting dolphins to cure ailing flounder populations.
“They are always out there in the passes flipping those flounder out of the water and eating them, so we should start killing some of the dolphins,” one of them told me in an email.
This idea sadly gained a large enough following to cause me to receive multiple messages advocating for it after I published an article on flounder conservation issues.
Two years later, the two teens in the same area these suggestions came from killed the dolphin we spoke about at the beginning of this story.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard comments about some wild game meat tastes like “bald eagle” or “spotted owl.”
Those comments aren’t funny and could be damaging to the cause of hunting if uttered in front of a nonhunter.
But could they also influence teens who want to impress adults?
It’s something to ponder.
Games: A few years ago, I received a hunting video game to review in the mail. I’m not a gamer, and since it was unsolicited, I did not review it but put it away in a box in our storage unit.
When the dolphin shooting case occurred, I took it out for study.
The game had multiple opportunities to kill nongame and even endangered animals like Bengal tigers.
Some hunting games are ethical with bag limits, seasons, and other aspects of how true hunters conduct themselves. I would even say most hunting games I have looked at are now on the up and up and promote resource stewardship.
But there’s another side to gaming and wildlife. There are games based on survival and apocalyptic scenarios that have nothing to do with hunting, and killing animals is a key component. This includes many nongame, protected, and endangered species.
This makes me come back to the quote from the warden in charge of the Pennsylvania case.
“It was almost like a video game for them. They did it because they were bored, he said.
Looking into the content of first-person shooter games is certainly something we should do as families and maybe as an industry. Hunting games are great but they need to line up with conservation ethics. And we need to consider many of our young children are playing games that have nothing to do with hunting but have much indiscriminate killing.
There is a gap somewhere in wildlife education and awareness of the penalties for these wildlife atrocities. Teens have had their lives uprooted by the consequences of these senseless actions.
The great news is that there are far more teens engaged in conservation than poaching. And it’s time we highlight them even more in our media outlets.
The Houston Safari Club Foundation’s educational work with Houston area school districts is a shining example.
Teens get to see conservation-centric hunting information and are inspired to give back to our natural resources. And at the next stage, the scholarship program helps connect forward-thinking young people with careers in the world of wildlife management.
Programs like Texas Brigades and others do a great job of instilling conservation awareness as well.
I have personally been inspired to see how mentoring can help teens through our Higher Calling Wildlife expeditions and mentoring program.
And one particular occurrence touches directly on this issue.
Last November, I took 14-year-old Nathan Childress on a “green hunt” for Nubian ibex at a friend’s ranch. Instead of a standard rifle, he had a dart gun, and the mission was to dart the massive ibex billy that had jumped the fence and gotten into another pasture.
After a long afternoon of hunting, Nathan made a perfect shot. He got to inoculate the ibex against disease, pose for some incredible photos with it and help move it to the proper pasture.
As the Texas Hill Country sunset that evening, Nathan said something profound.
“When people teach you the right way to hunt, and you get to do things like this, you want to do the right thing. I will never poach animals because I respect them too much and want to make sure kids 10 years from now can have opportunities like I have,” he said.
We can have more testimonies like Nathan’s if we invest more time and effort into youth education and mentorship.
But we have to also dig into what is happening with this teen poaching crisis that is rising across our nation. Something is influencing some teens to not only damage wildlife populations and tarnish the reputation of legal hunters, but also negatively impact their lives.
As an industry, we must confront this for the sake of the future of wildlife and our youth.