UTAH (ABC4) – According to the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, 2021’s poaching numbers present an increase from 2020. Last year, 1,153 wild animals were illegally killed in Utah, which is nearly 100 more than were killed the year prior.

Among the animals illegally killed were 180 deer, including 34 “trophy” buck deer, 113 elk, including 18 “trophy” bull elk, five moose, one bighorn sheep, 11 bears and 17 cougars.

But why are the rates of poaching increasing in our state? According to Chad Bettridge, operations captain at the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, there are many factors involved.

Each year, he says, there is the potential for more of a certain species to be present in specific area. For example, 2021 was a particularly good year for duck hunting. These higher wildlife numbers could potentially lead individuals to seize opportunity before double checking they’re equipped with the appropriate licensing, tags and are hunting within the appropriate season and area.

“The more ducks that are available, the more potential there is for a duck to get illegally killed,” he says. “Sometimes people get a little carried away or don’t really quite understand the regulations.”

This logic applies to fishing as well, and illegally caught fish are factored into the total yearly amounts of poached animals.

The increase in animal numbers in specific areas is also tied to water conditions, Bettridge says. Last year, Utah’s drought caused animals to gather in higher percentages in locations where water and food access was more plentiful.

“Where animals are congregate together, that might provide an opportunity for somebody wanting to do something illegal or somebody just making a mistake,” he says.

Bettridge also notes that Utah’s recent population increase might have to do with the higher numbers of illegally killed wildlife last year. Hunting and fishing regulations vary by state, and newcomers might not be familiar with the ins and outs of the laws in Utah.

“There’s always a bit of a learning curve on understanding hunting and fishing regulations,” he says.

But although poaching is a problem and is always discouraged, Bettridge says these rates shouldn’t constitute any sort of undue alarm.

“Poaching is obviously a problem. We always have animals that are illegally killed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s so much so that it’s something that is this huge problem, any more so than it has been in the past,” he says.

Individuals convicted of poaching can incur a variety of punishments, ranging from an infraction to a felony. Bettridge says most of the violations are Class B misdemeanors, like fishing without a license. Intentionally poaching big game, like elk or moose, is the most serious offense, and can result in jail time, losing hunting privileges and large fines. Bettridge also notes that if an individual makes a mistake that could be considered an act of poaching, they’ll typically receive a lesser penalty if they report the event directly to the DWR.

“People do have a tendency to make mistakes and we can appreciate that, we understand that,” he says. “That’s where we like people to contact us if they do something wrong so then we can work through that mistake.”

But all this just serves to underscore the importance of going through the appropriate channels before hunting or fishing to ensure you are in possession of the appropriate licensing and permits, and are familiar with the state protocols.

Guidebooks with all the information hunters and anglers need to know are available as PDFs on the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website, and in print at division offices and select licensing agents. Bettridge notes that, with the DWR app, hunting and fishing licenses can be downloaded to your phone, eliminating the need for a paper copy.

The DWR encourages individuals who encounter illegal poaching activities to contact the Utah Turn-in-a-Poacher (UTiP) hotline number or send an anonymous tip on the 411 app.

“Poaching is a pretty serious thing,” Bettridge says.  “We take it really seriously and we hope other people do take it seriously as well.”