You look at the photo of him grinning pensively, as if just a touch of worry is in the corners of his smirk as he sits between great, stupendous even, 6×6 elk antlers on a Colorado hillside.
Sure, then 44-year-old Thad Bingham must have known better; he is employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after all. But the bull was so big, so big he had to have it. He trespassed with three others on private land to poach the bull in an area not open to hunting.
How did he ever think he’d get away with it?
Bingham is a resident of the tiny town of Fruita, a community in Colorado’s Grand Valley. The town is on I-70 in the far western part of the state. It has a population of about 12,000 residents.
So yeah, word got around fast that Bingham had bagged a tremendous bull. He was thumping his chest; he’d gotten the big one this time. He even posted the photo of himself with that spurious grin between the bull’s antlers online. He thought he’d get away with it.
Wildlife officers, however, heard about the photo. They took a look and recognized landmarks in the background. This bull, they could plainly see had been killed in an area that’s closed to hunting.
Bingham’s trophy photo would soon make the Denver Post. The story wouldn’t be flattering.
There was more, much more to come for Bingham. He had greedily thrust himself into an ignominious crime no longer treated as victimless. Back in 1995, after Randal Francis, a then 35-year-old resident of Lakewood, Colo., poached a big and very well known bull named “Samson” by residents of Estes Park, Colo., apathy exploded into outrage. All poaching is illegal and all poachers should be punished. Poaching trophy game animals, however, is a special sin because it is driven by greed and potential profit.
Trophy poachers shouldn’t be treated as people who need a little venison to feed their hungry children. No, these modern poachers greedily steal a resource from the general public. Law-abiding hunters put in year after year for hard-to-draw tags to hunt for a bull like the one Bingham poached.
To make trophy poachers pay fines commensurate with their crimes, Colorado passed the “Samson Law.” Ever since, a poached 6×6 bull elk comes with a $10,000 fine. A bighorn sheep with a horn length of at least one-half curl will cost a poacher $25,000. Other trophy-sized big-game animals have similar fines associated with them.
The idea of making trophy poachers pay spread. Previously when they were caught, the fines were often just in the hundreds of dollars—that is like someone getting a speeding ticket for grand-theft auto.
To protect wildlife resources, which are largely funded by the license fees and taxes sportsmen pay, other states wanted “Samson Laws” of their own. A number of states have since begun using the Boone and Crockett Club’s (B&C) scoring system scoring system and other means to calculate values of poached game—the bigger the antlers, the bigger the fines.
B&C is now stepping in to help through the establishment of a new program called “Poach & Pay.” The program is intended to gather information from across state agencies to determine what restitution programs are already in place, and what processes and authorities are required to determine those regulations and values. The Poach & Pay program will also help to determine what measuring specifications (if any) are employed and, collectively, if these deterrents are effective—all in an effort to help states see what is working, where and how.
Tony A. Schoonen, Chief of Staff for Boone and Crockett, said, “We are in the process of making a comprehensive list of how each state deals with poachers. Thus far, we know that states that use some form of B&C’s scoring system to tabulate fines include Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas.”
B&C says it is time to bring some cohesiveness to the effort to make poaching sting the wallet. Leupold & Stevens stepped in to help fund the initiative. B&C then found a researcher. Her name is Vickie Edwards. She is a B&C Official Measurer and a former wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She also has extensive experience working with enforcement officers who prosecute poachers.
B&C announced the program at the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Annual Conference in Tucson in 2015. The state agencies are now providing data that Edwards is putting together. B&C will make the data public via a website. Ultimately, this data will identify what is and what is not working in the fight to stop poaching. The hope is to provide valuable information to help states improve their laws (or pass new laws) and restitution processes and programs to make poachers pay.
In the case of trophy fines, to hold up in court the scores of the animals need to be based on something concrete. To pass legal muster, they can’t be subjective. One option in the toolbox is the Boone and Crockett scoring system. B&C not only has a well-established way of scoring every type of big-game animal, but they also have official scorers spread out across the country. Now the organization is eager to help any state that needs it to get a handle on this problem.
It is not an easy mission, as the war on trophy poaching has many fronts. Some poachers have slipped onto off-limits military bases in Iowa. Some have sold parts of legally taken game animals in illegal markets. Others have walked boldly into hard-to-draw elk units in Colorado under the guise of fall turkey hunting (this can be done in Colorado with a rifle in some areas) or coyote hunting. Some have even faked state residency to draw a coveted tag.
A flagrant example of this was done by a New Mexico resident named as Daved English. He used the address of a UPS Store in Pagosa Springs, Colo., for his address on his Colorado license application for Bighorn Sheep Management Unit S29. He drew a resident-only tag and killed a beautiful 7/8-curl ram in the Conejos River drainage. Not surprisingly, some questioned his Colorado residency.
Those questions found their way to La Jara District Wildlife Manager Brian Bechaver. Officer Bechaver discovered that English’s Colorado address was at that UPS Store. His rented P.O. box had forwarding instructions to Los Alamos, New Mexico. English was prosecuted and eventually ordered to pay $65,455.50 in fines and penalties and had to forfeit the trophy bighorn.
Schoonen said, “After news broke about an American hunter in Zimbabwe killing Cecil the African lion, hunters got a bad rap. A lot of reporters who called me actually asked what the difference is between a ‘hunter’ and a ‘poacher.’ They really didn’t know. They didn’t understand that the vast majority of hunters are good, law-abiding people who cherish the resources they utilize. They didn’t realize that hunters are proud that their dollars pay for conservation. To fix this, hunters need to loudly make this distinction. Part of doing that is making sure that the few criminals out there pay, and the hunting community is seen coming down hard on poaching. The general public needs to understand that hunters and poachers are not brothers.”
The Club’s mission – and its scoring system – is all about a third type of person who pursues wild game: the hunter-conservationist. Hunters, who coined the term “conservation,” realized starting more than 130 years ago that wildlife was dwindling and reasonable bag limits were needed, as well as habitat management, and translocations to restore depleted ranges.
It was hunters – the first conservationists – who organized this work through interest groups, like the Boone and Crockett Club that supported creating state game agencies and federal land management agencies. They knew that sustainable, healthy populations would contain more trophy-sized specimens, thus indicating healthy ecosystems, and subsequently developed the B&C scoring system to track this signal of successful recovery. It was hunters – the first conservationists – who organized this work through interest groups, like the Boone and Crockett Club that supported creating state game agencies and federal land management agencies. They knew that sustainable, healthy populations would contain more trophy-sized specimens, thus indicating healthy ecosystems, and subsequently developed the B&C scoring system to track this signal of successful recovery.
Poaching was a problem then as it is now, but restoration prevailed and the populations grew accordingly, including allowing male animals to reach maturity. In 1976 Boone and Crockett registered about 300 animals annually into its records book. Today the records indicate some 1300 to 1500 specimens are entered annually. Using this measuring and recording system that tracked the recovery of our big-game species to now support law enforcement in carrying on the success of wildlife conservation makes good sense, and is even a sort of sweet music.
As for Bingham, perhaps it isn’t nice to shine so much of the spotlight on his crime, as there are too many examples of poachers just like him, and many much worse, across America. We’re highlighting him because, as an employee with the USFWS, his crime is especially telling of how greed can bring out the worst in some. This shows that penalties need to be in place that will keep those who might be tempted to break game laws from acting on those impulses.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted a two-year investigation of Bingham’s crime. After reaching a plea agreement with the Garfield County District Attorney’s office in exchange for lesser penalties, Bingham paid over $200 in court fines and was ordered to donate $5,000 to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Prior to his plea agreement, he faced over $12,000 in fines for several charges. The three other poachers in his group, 45-year-old Brian Scheer, 48-year-old Barrett Rowles and 45-year-old Josh Fitzsimmons, all from the Western Slope, paid fines as well.
“Poachers come from all walks of life, but everyone is subject to the same rules and regulations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will prosecute anyone to the full extent in cases like this one,” said Area Wildlife Manager J.T. Romatzke of Grand Junction.
Thanks to Boone and Crockett and Leupold, together with state agency partners, needed laws will hopefully be strengthened, restitution increased, and legal systems made less lenient when dealing with all poaching violations. And when it comes to trophy poaching, the fine will match the crime.