Men suspected of poaching elk antlers in seashore

02/26/2015

Two men allegedly poaching tule elk antlers from the Point Reyes National Seashore were cited by rangers last Wednesday for federal offenses that could land them in prison. The men, whose names the National Park Service has not released, took antlers from Tomales Point, where there is a fenced elk herd of almost 300, then drove an inflatable boat to the Miller Boat Launch in Marshall. 

There, seashore rangers issued numerous citations for disturbing wildlife and removing wildlife parts from the park. A Marin County deputy also arrested one of the men on three outstanding Sonoma County warrants. Both will have to appear in federal court.

“We work hard all year round to curb all poaching activities in the park,” the seashore’s chief ranger, Dave Schifsky, said. Later he added, “We came upon this violation, spent some time on investigation, and ultimately cited them.”

Mr. Schifsky did not specify how often citations are issued, but said people are cited for resource violations every year. John Dell’Osso, a park spokesman, added that antler poaching has been “an ongoing issue in park for many years now.” 

Still, they can make judgment calls. “If there was an 8-year-old girl walking with an antler in her hands, no, we would not cite her,” Mr. Dell’Osso said. “We’d explain why they are important…In most cases, it’s pretty darn obvious and blatant when someone is collecting them for whatever means—using [them] for furniture, something medicinal, or for decoration.”

Each violation for poaching carries maximum penalties of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. The park is also determining whether another federal law, the Lacey Act—which imposes heavier penalties—might also apply.

According to Marin County Deputy Jerod Kansanback, the men appeared surprised to see law enforcement officers after hooking the boat onto their getaway truck. “They walked away from their vehicle when I drove up, so I got out of my car and I asked where they were going,” Mr. Kansanback said, adding that the antlers had been visible in the boat. 

Mr. Schifsky would not say how many antlers the men took, but a photo that appeared in the Marin Independent Journal shows roughly half a dozen. They are now being held as evidence. Historically, Mr. Schifsky said, once an investigation has concluded, the seashore returns the antlers—probably chipped up—to the land.

Like deer, tule elk shed their antlers every year. Each antler, which is solid bone, can weigh up to nine pounds, said Dave Press, the wildlife ecologist at the seashore. Size tends to correlate with age. Considering how many males live within the fenced area—the total population has ranged from 540 in 2012 to 284 last November and December, though adult males with antlers likely comprise just 30 percent of the total—it can add up to thousands of pounds of antler bone shed over the years.

Mr. Press said it’s critical that the nutrients in the antlers remain in the seashore, to cycle back into the soil. Local soils don’t have large stores of selenium and copper, essential nutrients for the elk. Those nutrients, Mr. Press said, show up in the antlers, and as the antlers wear away, they are returned to the soil.

With an imbalanced diet, the elk can grow deformed antlers, he said. That can  affect which males establish dominance, and how well they are able to spar with each other.

And other wildlife, like small rodents, benefit, too. “Anybody that’s been out in fields and picked up an antler sitting in the woods will noticed chew marks,” he said. “Other species are in the same predicament—they need nutrients and minerals.” (He added that those animals “recycle the material back into ecosystem through feces and urine,” making their way back to foragers like elk.)

The seashore chips some of the antlers—particularly those employees find near the trail at Tomales Point, where they could easily be taken—and casts them on the landscape.