SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The number of animals poached in Utah has increased by more than 30 percent over the last two years, according to state wildlife officials.
Authorities say that more than 1,287 animals were killed illegally last year, compared to 958 two years ago.
The 2014 figure is expected to increase as officers find more kills from last year, but officials say that poaching is still drastically underreported.
“We do not know how many other illegally killed animals are never discovered or brought to our attention,” said Capt. Rick Olson with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Most poaching investigations start with an animal reported or found dead by officers. Authorities can determine that an animal didn’t die of natural causes, but tracking down how the animal was killed or who did it isn’t easy, Capt. Mitch Lane said. Authorities collect bullets and other evidence at the scene, but without a gun to compare them with, ballistics tests aren’t much use.
Investigators rely on tips from the public and people who see an animal killed or talk to someone bragging about poaching.
Officials say deer were among the most-poached animals last year. They are largely targeted for their antlers. The carcasses are often left headless, Box Elder County wildlife officer Mike Kinghorn said.
The 2014 list of illegally killed creatures also includes elk, bears, moose, buffalo, a desert tortoise, eagles and a pelican.
The pelican case is under investigation by Kinghorn, who said it started after a motorist reporting hearing a shot then seeing the bird drop out of the sky in Harrisville.
Evidence was lost after animal control officers responded and disposed of the body before a wildlife officer got there.
“We haven’t gotten anywhere with that case,” Kinghorn told the Standard-Examiner. “It’s just pelicans are not thought of as game animals. They are never hunted, at any time of year, but they are protected wildlife.”
It’s not clear why the number of poached animals has increased in recent years, but Lane said the total changes from year to year. The increase could be because more wildlife officers are patrolling and investigating cases.
A kill is illegal if it’s out of season, done without a license or if a hunter takes more animals than the state allows.
Authorities say that the animals are valuable: big horn sheep, for example, have an estimated worth of $30,000. Poaching also takes away from the environment and other, legal hunters. Those caught can face felony charges.
But the number of poached animals is still dwarfed by the tens of thousands hunted legally every year, Lane said.
“The general public and the sporting public can do their part by helping us do our job,” he said.