Spree Wildlife Killing Bill Gets Hearing

A poacher that Northwest Sportsman magazine first told you about in our January issue is getting notice on TV and on a local hunting board — and legislators today held a public hearing on a bill that would make so-called wildlife spree killings a felony.

WDFW Enforcement Deputy Chief Mike Cenci calls James Cody Stearns “the poster child” for why lawmakers need to pass House Bill 1340.

“We used a video clip to illustrate our point that there are bad people out there who deserve harsher penalties,” Cenci said immediately after the hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources this morning.

Stearns, 20, was recently shown on KIRO TV heading to the Grays Harbor County jail for a five-month sentence after pleading guilty in district court last November to five misdemeanors of illegally killing five deer.

SCREEN GRAB FROM KIRO TV OF JAMES CODY STEARNS. (KIRO TV)

That after the Hoquiam resident, known as The Headhunter, finished up a 10-month sentence just this past April for other wildlife offenses.

On tape Stearns denied having ever shot any animals, but according to KIRO, WDFW game wardens “said they believe the man has killed more than a hundred animals and that the actual total could be much higher.”

A slide show on the station’s Web site shows him posing with numerous animals, as well as evidence seized during WDFW’s investigation.

Officers dragged a local lake with grappling hooks to recover evidence in part to make the case.

“For the most part, he took the heads, and after he brought them home, he decided whether they measured up to trophy and retention potential,” Cenci told this magazine for our article that came out early last month. “If not, then they were discarded in the pond. Meat was sometimes taken, but generally, he was just interested in killing.”

Stearns hunting privileges have been revoked for life, according to WDFW.

After our article appeared, Stearns wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 14, “Im in the sportsmen northwest hunting magazine look on page 18 lol sweet article.”

Other posts include mentions of a daughter and possibly suicidal thoughts.

SCREEN GRAB FROM KIROTV.COM'S STORY ON JAMES CODY STEARNS. (KIRO TV)

The Stearns case is being discussed at Hunting Washington, and in his Seattle Gun Rights Examiner column, Dave Workman wrote:

This column has been critical of the Department of Fish & Wildlife lately, but kudos are due to the game cops who rounded up this guy.

It’s hard enough for honest hunters to notch a tag in this state without a guy like this running around.

Now, legislators are considering stiffening poaching penalties for spree killings, which this magazine has been reporting on for about a year.

A legislative report on HB 1340 summarizes it thusly:

“The elements of the crime of unlawful hunting of big game in the first degree are changed. A person may be convicted of this crime without first being convicted of a different wildlife-related crime if the person kills, or attempts to kill, three or more big game animals within the same course of events. The same course of events is defined to mean within a 24-hour period or as part of a series of acts evidencing a continuity of purpose.”

Furthermore, it explains:

The crime of unlawful hunting of big game in the second degree is committed when a person does one of three things:

hunts for, takes, or possesses big game without the required licenses and tags;

violates any rules regarding requirements for hunting big game;

or possesses a big game animal taken during a closed season [RCW 77.15.410(1)].

The crime of unlawful hunting of big game in the first degree is committed when a person who has previously committed a wildlife-related crime, within five years of that conviction, commits one of the acts that qualifies as the unlawful hunting in the second degree [RCW 77.15.410(2)].

The unlawful hunting of big game in the second degree is a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both a fine and jail time [RCW 9.92.020]. In addition, a person convicted of this crime for hunting out of season or exceeding possession limits is also subject to a suspension of hunting privileges for two years.

The unlawful hunting of big game in the first degree is a class C felony, which is punishable by confinement in a state correctional institution for five years, by a fine of up to $10,000, or by both a fine and prison time [RCW 9A.20.021]. In addition, a person convicted of this crime is subject to a suspension of hunting privileges for 10 years.

The term “big game” is defined to include the following animals: deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, caribou, mountain sheep, pronghorn antelopes, cougars, black bears, and grizzly bears

The bill is cosponsored by Representatives Kretz, McCune, Johnson and Warnick.

TVW has video of the hearing; it begins around the 50-minute mark and runs through about the 64-minute mark.

“People with a mindset that will do things like that to wildlife, there needs to be more harsh options when they get caught,” said Kretz, a Wauconda Republican who represents much of Northeast Washington, during testimony.

“This allows an additional tool in our toolbox to deal with individuals who blatantly, illegally take our state’s wildlife,” added WDFW Chief Bruce Bjork.

Cenci said that spree killing shouldn’t be confused with frustrated sportsmen who might “temporarily” lay aside ethics to get around the rules. He termed it “serial poaching, and it’s got a sick and twisted ending.”

“Generally, the criminal goes out in the middle of the night,” said Cenci. “Season’s often not open. And with the aid of a powerful spotlight, that individual uses it to locate game, and then shine it in the eyes of the animal in order to paralyze them, giving then the opportunity for the poacher to kill the animal or multiple animals. Sometimes the heads are cut off for trophy value and the rest of the animal is left in the woods. All too often the entire animal … is left to rot. That’s not something a sportsman does.”

He said violators often have criminal backgrounds with felony convictions, and “amazingly enough, jail is not necessarily a deterrent by itself.”

“But if you couple that with elevating the level of the crime and loss of coveted hunting privileges for a period to 10 years … we think that will help change attitudes that these egregious acts, they’re not worth it. The current suspension period is two years. A longer period of revocation is not only just, in our view, but it also gives fish and wildlife police officers a longer opportunity to act on tips and put together a plan to catch up to the bad guys,” Cenci added.

After he finished testifying, there was a moment of levity: Before the committee, an unlikely trio sat shoulder to shoulder in support of the bill — lobbyist Ed Owens, representing the Hunters Heritage Council, Jennifer Hillman of the Humane Society of the United States and Jack Field of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. It sparked one legislator to take out his digital camera and snap a quick pic.

But it was quickly back to business.

“The regulated hunting community are of the opinion the bill doesn’t go far enough,” said Owens. “There is a high level of anger across the state against these individuals. They don’t hunt, they simply kill for their own pleasure.”

Hillman called the bill “a powerful deterrent” and Field asked the committee to pass the bill.

However, Owens did say there was some concern about cases where, say, a legal hunter uses a high-powered shell to shoot a targeted animal, but the bullet passes through and kills or injures other animals.

The committee is chaired by Rep.  Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) in whose district four slain elk were discovered last November and reported on by KING 5 in early December.

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