Man Violates Wildlife Laws That Keep Oklahoma Deer Population Thriving
TULSA, Oklahoma - Deer antlers and mounts are popular for home decorations; but in Oklahoma there are strict wildlife laws that keep people from selling them, even if the deer had been harvested legally.
A former Broken Arrow man was fined more than $11,000 last week for selling two deer skulls to undercover game wardens.
“We're talking about someone who just has no regard for wildlife or our rules, or the past or the future,” Tulsa County Game Warden Carlos Gomez said.
To appreciate where Oklahoma's deer population is now, Gomez says you have to know where it once was.
“At the turn of the century they were wiped out,” he said. “What the younger sportsmen, and people that haven't looked at their history, fail to acknowledge is that we could wipe it out again.”
Deer were hunted to near extinction and it took decades before the population became healthy again, thanks to regulations.
Gomez says without laws, it would only be a matter of years before the numbers started to decline again. For that reason, he says regulations that might seem strange to some, make perfect sense.
“Our managers have made the decision that it opens that can of worms for people to market and sell,” he said.
A deer skull could be worth hundreds of dollars, depending on the size and condition, but in Oklahoma it's against the law to sell deer skulls or any antlers still attached to the skull plate.
When game wardens noticed a Broken Arrow man was trying to sell 11 deer skulls on E-bay, they set up an undercover operation. Gomez says the seller knew it was illegal and that a friend had warned him several times not to sell them.
When confronted by game wardens, Gomez says the man admitted he knew he had broken the law.
“He fell down on the front porch in front of four grown men and just started crying his eyes out, apologizing, saying 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done it, I knew better, I just want it to go away,'” Gomez said.
During the sting, Gomez says the state paid Steven Thorton $500 for two trophy buck European mounts. Gomez says Thorton had hunting licenses in five states, but says his story on where the skulls came from didn't line up with any state’s hunting records.
A judge ordered Thorton, who now lives in Dallas, to pay an $11,356 fine - $8,000 of that is restitution for the Wildlife Department. Thorton was also ordered to comply with a condition of supervised probation for 30 months.
Gomez says if people were allowed to sell deer skulls or wildlife meat, there would be more incentive for poachers, which could lead to a dwindling deer population. He says there's no way for wardens to know if the buck was truly harvested legally. Gomez gave an example that there are people who might harvest their limit on smaller bucks, then poach a trophy buck to sell.
“He takes the tag that went with the little buck he shot and tries to use that confirmation number and pass it off as being this deer,” Gomez said.
He says with up to 100,000 deer checked in each year and only 100 game wardens, it’s not feasible to cross check every animal.
“The bottom line is, here in Oklahoma, we want to protect the wildlife from the market problem of the past,” Gomez said.
It is legal to sell deer antler sheds because they're not worth much when they’re not connected to the skull, so there's less incentive to poach.
Full deer mounts, done by a taxidermist, are also legal to sell but only if the antlers have been detached from the skull and reconnected with screws.
A person usually has pay between about $300 and $600 upfront for a taxidermist mount. The return investment would be almost nothing if sold, creating no incentive for poaching, according to wardens