With a backdrop of 41 trophy deer heads attached to a barn for display, wildlife officers from two states announced a major poaching case Friday, charging four men in the illegal killing of trophy bucks on Fort Campbell property.
Tennessee and Kentucky wildlife agents along with federal officials investigated the poaching, which they say could have been taking place over a 10-year period.
The dozens of deer head mounts - prized for the large, multi-tined antlers - had been taken from suspects' homes.
Jim Edward Page, 43, of Clarksville; Curtis Wallace, 45, of Dover; Wendell Taylor, 43, of Big Rock; and Gregory W. Crokarell, 41, of Dover, have been charged.
While Fort Campbell provides permits for $25 for limited hunting, only archery equipment, muzzleloaders and shotguns are allowed. The men were using high-powered rifles in an area never open to hunting, officials said.
"They were poaching, but they were showing these animals off as trophies to be proud of," said officer Jereme Odom, with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
"Honest hunters would never take pride in killing a deer illegally, but we will probably always have a small percentage who cheat."
Fort Campbell straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and charges could be forthcoming in Kentucky as well. Many other individuals also are being targeted in the continuing investigation, officials said.
The suspects were risking their own lives by slipping onto a part of Fort Campbell where the military has weapons training, and unexploded ordnance is common.
This is part of an 18,000-acre area of woods and fields where large trophy bucks can be found. The deer heads were displayed Friday along with three high-powered rifles with scopes that were confiscated.
Wallace has agreed to a settlement in Stewart County general sessions court on TWRA's 20 counts of possessing illegal wildlife and 20 counts of failing to tag deer, officials said.
Tags are required on deer after they're killed as a way for wildlife officials to document the numbers and genders taken, to help manage deer populations.
Wallace has lost his hunting privileges for seven years, has to pay court costs and fines of $2,500, is on one-year probation and has forfeited the deer mounts.
Page and Taylor have been ordered to appear in court in January and face at least 24 charges for illegal possession of wildlife and failure to tag.
Federal charges on the three include trespassing on a military installation and violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits transporting, selling or receiving illegally taken wildlife.
TWRA charged Crokarell with six counts that include possessing and transporting illegal wildlife. He, too, has a January court date.
Investigators also are looking into the taxidermists who may have mounted the illegally taken deer.
Not confined to hunting
Poaching is not confined to hunting. It happens when people are fishing without a license; go over the limit; or take fish, mussels or any other wildlife that is not allowed.
The illegal activity takes place not just in rural areas but also in some well-to-do residential areas, such as in Nashville. Deer poachers have been apprehended in Forest Hills, around Radnor Lake State Natural Area, along Chickering Road beside Percy Warner Park and even on a golf course there.
These are areas with woods and huge yards near parks, where in some cases homeowners put out food for the deer because they enjoy watching them.
The deer can be particularly tempting to a poacher because they grow to older ages in these largely protected areas - like at Fort Campbell - and can have the big, sought-after antlers.
"When people think of poachers, they think of the old leather-skinned bearded men that are backwoodsmen and things like that," said Cape Taylor, TWRA law enforcement manager for the Middle Tennessee area.
"A lot of them we catch are people in $45,000 four-wheel drives with a case of beer and an $800 rifle."
Last year TWRA wrote more than 8,800 citations, with individuals often receiving more than one in an incident. In the Middle Tennessee region, which includes Nashville and Clarksville, 43 percent were for hunting violations.
The Fort Campbell bust began Nov. 26, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Jason Godwin saw two men in the early morning going into the off-limits area and contacted others.
Fort Campbell military police, along with TWRA, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service from Land Between the Lakes, responded.
A search turned up Page, and then Wallace gave himself up. Further investigation led to more discoveries over the following days, more charges and the confiscation of the trophy white-tail deer mounts.
Doug Markham, a TWRA spokesman, said this is one of the largest poaching cases ever in the area.
"What happened here was disrespectful to true hunters, to all the people of Tennessee and Kentucky - since the wildlife is owned by the states - and to the wildlife itself," he said.