About 20 state Department of Fish & Wildlife officers served search warrants in east Skagit County on Saturday to gather evidence in a poaching case.
Fish & Wildlife Sgt. Russ Mullins said the officers served six search warrants at residences in Lyman and Hamilton, and near Rasar State Park and Birdsview as part of an investigation into recent elk and cougar poaching in the area.
Fish & Wildlife said evidence suggests a group of four suspects coordinated the killing of two elk and a cougar between December and February.
“We ended up recovering one of the elk racks and the cougar hide, and seizing a truck and a bunch of equipment,” Mullins said.
Officers interviewed suspects and potential witnesses. They also confiscated elk meat, a rifle, cellphones and photos.
One of the photos shows a man dragging a limp cougar. Mullins said the cougar is believed to have been hunted using dogs — a practice that is illegal in the state.
Among the items Fish & Wildlife officers recovered from the residences were dog collars equipped with GPS — a tool hunters use to track dogs that are chasing game.
A dog is pictured in the photo officers found of the limp cougar.
“The photo of the cougar shows the suspect actually at the location where they killed it and the dog in the photo off to the left a little bit. That’s pretty sound evidence of that violation,” Mullins said.
The investigation is ongoing and none of the suspects has been charged. Mullins said all of the suspects have criminal histories involving poaching violations.
He said the investigation is a big case for the area.
“We were able to put together solid cases on people that have prior history with Fish & Wildlife violations and that have been likely engaging in these sort of activities for many years,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit group ... It was a sophisticated kind of criminal activity.”
The Fish & Wildlife officers came from as far as Renton to help serve the warrants.
Mullins said cougar poaching in the area is uncommon.
“It is fairly unusual because this type of poaching requires the use of trained hound dogs ... Seeing as it’s illegal and has been for many years now, there are not a lot of trained dogs left,” he said.
The law that prohibits using dogs to hunt black bears and the state’s big cats was created as a voter-approved initiative in 1996, according to the Office of the Secretary of State.
According to the law, violators cannot get hunting licenses for five years.
Elk, as well as deer and moose, are common targets for poachers statewide, according to a recent Fish & Wildlife news release.
In Skagit County, elk poaching cases are less common than deer poaching cases, according to Fish & Wildlife records. Of 87 deer and elk cases in 2015 and 2016, seven involved elk.
Legal hunting seasons are designed to control wildlife populations, Fish & Wildlife’s Deputy Chief of Enforcement Mike Cenci said in the release. Illegal hunting can harm herds and can put legal hunters at a disadvantage.