Three men belonging to an Idaho family suspected of poaching for many years have been convicted of multiple misdemeanors after they were caught shooting elk from a moving pickup truck.
Donald E. Curtiss, 74, his son Travis Eugene, 47, and Travis’s son, Eben Eugene, 22, pleaded guilty to a total eight misdemeanors, including unlawful taking of wildlife and hunting game animals from a motorized vehicle. They will jointly pay $6,000 in restitution along with fines and court costs, and each serve 100 hours of community service. Donald and Travis had their hunting licenses suspended for 10 years, and Eben had his license suspended for five years.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department (IDFG) believes the Curtiss family has been poaching for “multiple decades.” They were able to make these convictions thanks to the quick action of several witnesses and the unique kind of bullet the men used during the incident.
“We wouldn’t have made the convictions at all without the witnesses calling right away and getting as fresh information as we could,” lead IDFG investigator Joe Heald told MeatEater. “All the witnesses were willing to provide written statements about what they had seen and then testify in court. Without that, it would have been a really tough case.”
On November 2, 2021, the Curtiss group located a large herd of elk on a piece of Bureau of Land Management land near Arco, Idaho. They chased the herd in the truck for “a considerable distance,” with Travis behind the wheel, Donald shooting from the passenger window, and Eben shooting from the bed of the truck. They used a two-track road to drive into the herd, splitting it in two, and then went off-road to chase the group that contained the largest six-point bull.
The men killed a rag horn bull, a cow, a spike, a calf, and two mature bulls. They drove past the first four elk to the mature bulls, whose head, quarters, and backstraps they harvested. They left the other elk to waste. They illegally killed six elk in total, and IDFG officers also found evidence of a seventh elk that was mortally wounded but escaped.
Unfortunately for the Curtiss’s, two other hunters had also been hunting the same elk herd and witnessed the trio intercept and fire at the large group of animals as they tried to make their way from a field into the mountains. One of those hunters immediately called IDFG’s poaching hotline to report the incident, and officers executed a search warrant on the Curtiss home shortly after they returned home.
The family initially agreed to speak to the officers, but it didn’t take long for them to clam up and invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Even though the officers found meat from the two poached bulls in the Curtiss home, they weren’t sure the charges would stick. “At this point the case may have gone unsolved, needing to be proven based solely on the evidence at the scene and witness observations and cooperation. Witnesses to the rescue,” the IDFG said in its press release.
The two hunters observed the incident, gave detailed statements, and followed up those statements with testimony in court. Later, a third witness helped officers in identifying the suspects by recording the license plate number of a truck that matched the description of the Curtiss vehicle the officers were looking for.
At the trial, a fourth expert firearms witness confirmed that the poachers used unusual types of all-copper 7mm and .270-caliber bullets known as Barnes XLC. These bullets were only produced between 2001 and 2006, and they feature a unique blue coating.
Heald told MeatEater that these bullets were found in the four elk that were left to waste, and investigators later found one of them in the meat from one of the bull elk the Curtiss’s carried home. This crucial piece of physical evidence confirmed witness accounts of the incident.
“It seems like almost every year, I get a call about an elk that’s been shot and left to waste,” Heald said. “Most of the time I do a necropsy on the elk and pull out a bullet, but it’s two days old. I don’t have any suspects. I don’t have anything to go on. In this case, without the witnesses calling right away, that’s what it would have been.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction to the charges and penalties issued by Idaho Fish and Game on June 13, 2023.