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State's poaching price tags need adjusting

Larry Woody • Mar 22, 2016 at 2:30 PM

Tennessee has a "restitution law" that mandates specific financial penalties for various big-game animals that are killed illegally.

The relatively-new law drew attention earlier this year when two Rutherford County men were caught poaching deer and their punishment included paying restitution for the animals.

I think the restitution law is good idea - except for the fact that the size of the fine is based on a individual animal's value as a trophy.

Under the restitution law, any illegally-killed whitetail deer costs the violator at least $1,000 - but more if it has big antlers.

A poached elk carries a minimum restitution fine of $1,500 - and possibly more, again depending on its antler size.

A poached turkey costs $1,000. (Interestingly, there is no increase in the fine for a big beard and long spurs.)

A bear killed illegally costs $5,000, plus an additional fine for any orphaned cub.

I support the premise of requiring a poacher to pay restitution for illegally killing a big-game animal. Poaching is stealing, and having to pay restitution might serve as a deterrent.

However, I disagree with basing the value of an animal on its status as a trophy.

For example, a poached cow elk or a bull with small antlers warrants a $1,500 fine, but a bull with big antlers draws an additional $500 per point.

Similarly a poached doe, a spike buck or a fork-horn carries a fine of $1,000, but a buck with between eight and ten antler points is assessed an additional $500 fine per point. Eleven points and over draws an extra $750 per point.

The logic - if it can be called that - is that the bigger the "trophy," the more valuable it is.

I disagree. In fact, an argument could be made that a little breeding-age doe is more valuable than a grizzled old 10-point buck in terms of proliferating the herd. At one time does were protected for that very reason.

Likewise, a decrepit mossy-racked buck is not as valuable to the long-term propagation of the herd as a virile young spike or fork-horn with a lot of years ahead of him.

I killed my first deer in 1963 and have added approximately 140 more since, and each one is special. That number includes some good-sized bucks, but I wouldn't rate their value by their antler size. I've never even had an antler measured to determine its "score.''

If someone wants to hunt for trophies that's fine. A couple of my best hunting buddies are trophy hunters, and I have absolutely no problem with it. But I AM troubled by the trend toward pressuring ALL hunters to be trophy hunters, even if they don't want to be. It's already happened on some Wildlife Management Areas such as Catoosa, on which only bucks with big antlers can be taken. The restitution law that decides the value of a deer by the size of its antlers feeds into that trophy-hunting mindset.

It's true that some poachers are drawn to big antlers, and for them stiffer fines for big bucks might serve as a deterrent. However, studies have found that most poachers are seeking a thrill, not a "trophy.'' (If an obsession to kill a big buck prompts someone to do it illegally, what does that say about what the trophy craze has led to?)

As far as I'm concerned, a poached deer is a poached deer, and the restitution should be the same for each and every one. Placing a higher value on a "trophy" animal cheapens all the rest.

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