Poaching is the illegal killing or capturing of wildlife, which is generally considered a criminal misdemeanor. Animals are often killed illegally for their meat, skin, or body parts. One of the driving forces of poaching is the worldwide trade in illegal animal parts, such as ivory and fur. Many animal parts are also sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Poaching is often done in connection with wildlife trafficking.
For example, one target of poachers is the American black bear, sought after for its hide, paws, gallbladder, and bile. These parts are used in Eastern medicine, especially the gallbladder and bile, which are used in the treatment of heart and kidney diseases. Law enforcement has determined that one dried bear gallbladder can sell for up to $30,000 on the black market.
There are a number of state, federal, and international wildlife laws that protect wildlife and make poaching and trafficking in protected wildlife and animal parts illegal.
Does Federal Law Prohibit Poaching?
There are several federal laws governing the illegal killing of wildlife, as follows:
- The Lacey Act: The Lacey Act prohibits the import, export, sale, or transportation of illegally killed wildlife. It also prohibits illegal trafficking in fish and plants, especially trees and their timber. A violation of the Lacey Act is punishable by one year in prison and payment of a fine of as much as $100,000 for individuals or $200,000 for organizations. A felony violation of the Lacey Act results in even higher fines;
- The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act: This Act prohibits the killing or trading of both bald and golden eagles, which is punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to one year in prison. The poaching of eagles can also result in a loss of grazing rights on federal lands if the perpetrator had such rights;
- The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: This Act protects migratory birds native to the U.S., as well as their nests and eggs, from poaching. The Act makes it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg of migratory birds, unless a person is authorized to do any of these acts by a permit issued by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior;
- The Endangered Species Act (ESA): This Act mandates that federal agencies, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service, ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species.
In addition, federal agencies should not do anything that could result in the destruction of habitat that has been designated as critical to these species. The law also prohibits any action that constitutes a “taking” of any species animal that is listed as endangered fish or wildlife.
Lastly, foreign commerce in listed species is made illegal by the ESA. This includes importing and exporting animals and their parts internationally as well as between states in the U.S.
The federal Department of Justice has an Environment and Natural Resources Division, which is authorized to prosecute international wildlife trafficking crimes. It mostly relies on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Lacey Act, as well as crimes related to trading illegal animals and animal parts, such as smuggling, money laundering, and criminal conspiracy.
The Fish and Wildlife Service of the federal Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the NOAA, and other agencies have charged perpetrators of violations of wildlife protections laws. In many cases, the perpetrators have been convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment and fines. Some cases have involved internationally protected species. These include ivory, rhinoceros horn, narwhal tusk, shark fins, turtles, and reptiles.
Federal prosecutors also have pursued cases against traffickers whose crimes threaten wildlife protected by U.S. law, such as mountain lions, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and paddlefish eggs.
Are There State Laws That Prohibit Poaching?
Many states, such as Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, have initiated anti-poaching programs. Under these programs, rewards are given to individuals who share information with law enforcement about poachers.
Over the past several years, many poachers have been caught under these anti-poaching programs. However, the inconsistency among state laws does allow some loopholes that make it challenging for law enforcement to end the trade in illegal animal parts.
For example, California has a Shark Fin Law. In China, shark fins are used to make shark fin soup, which is considered to be a great delicacy. Shark fins can sell for as much as $500 in China. Reportedly, people estimate that 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, which end up in shark fin soup.
In New Mexico, game wardens employed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish investigate trophy poachers who kill many types of big game just for the head or horns. The poachers leave the rest of the animal to rot. About 100 trophy poaching cases are investigated every year in New Mexico, involving such animals as elk, bighorn sheep, ibex, and oryx.
A law recently adopted in New Mexico makes it a felony violation to waste game in this manner. A person can be sentenced to a term of imprisonment that lasts for up to 18 months and a fine of $5,000.
In Nevada, elk poaching is a serious issue that is addressed by criminal codes that provide for punishment by fines and jail time. In 2017, a convicted perpetrator was required to pay a civil penalty of $20,000 for an incident of poaching an elk. He was also sentenced to five years of probation. He would have had to serve 32 months in prison if he had violated the terms of his probation.
Other states also make persistent efforts to stop poaching. For example, in 2016, a game warden with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation arrested three men for deer poaching. They had killed 8 bucks and 14 deer illegally, and they were doing it only for the thrill of it.
In a case in Maine, the target of the poachers was baby eels. A federal investigation, known as “Operation Broken Glass,” because baby eels look like shards of glass, successfully ended a large poaching conspiracy.
Poaching should not be confused with hunting law violations. Of course, hunting of certain animals at certain times of the year is a legal activity. It requires getting a hunting license from a state government agency and then obeying applicable laws about hunting rights and rules about how animals can be pursued, killed, or captured.
The following laws ensure that hunting is done ethically and sustainably as follows:
- Hunting Season: There are periods of time that are designated for hunting of particular species. Seasons are usually based on the breeding or migration patterns so as to keep populations healthy;
- Bag Limits: A bag limit is the most animals that one hunter may kill in one day or one season.
- Prohibited Weapons: The types of weapons that can be used are restricted again for reasons of ethics or concerns about animal welfare.
Do I Need a Lawyer for My Poaching Problem?
If you have been charged with poaching or other violations of any of the international, federal, or local laws that protect wildlife, an experienced criminal defense attorney can advise you of your legal rights and defenses. They can also ensure that you are given all the protections guaranteed by the law. A criminal defense lawyer also can represent you in court.