You gotta give them points for creativity.
Two New York poachers got busted recently for taking two large antlered deer in an area closed to deer hunting. One of them posed as a female wildlife photographer on Facebook to contact real photographers and suss out the location of big bucks in urban and suburban areas, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“We have had deer poached in [this area] before, but I’ve never seen or heard of anyone going to so much effort to conceal their poaching activities," Lieutenant Shea Mathis told MeatEater. Mathis was an Environmental Conservation Officer when he began investigating the case in 2022.
"We typically think of deer poaching happening at night, but these guys were doing it in broad daylight disguised as hikers," he continued. "Even when the suspects encountered potential witnesses, they seemed to have a cover story rehearsed. Reading their text message threads gave us some eye-opening insight into how they operated.”
Jayson Zorda and Kevin Butler first caught the attention of law enforcement in 2022 after the Tonawanda, NY, Police Department received calls about two suspicious men walking through the woods near the Raintree Apartment Complex. The locations where Zorda and Butler operated were mostly undeveloped pieces of property adjacent to residential or commercial properties as well as some industrial parks and residential backyards.
The tipster, who claimed to be an avid hunter, spotted a man crouching in the woods behind his residence and heard what he believed to be the snap of a bowstring. He saw a 16-point buck get hit with an arrow as another man took pictures of the wounded deer with his cell phone. The suspects fled the area when police arrived, but law enforcement pulled their trail cam photos and soon identified the dynamic duo.
Both men denied hunting in Tonawanda when interviewed by law enforcement, but search warrants soon put an end to that lie. Officials seized cell phones, hunting equipment, and clothes and soon had enough evidence to charge the pair with misdemeanor charges for illegally taking whitetail deer.
Further review of Zorda’s cell phone revealed a larger scheme involving other unidentified poachers. The pair “conspired with a network of poachers” to find hunting and wildlife photography posts that featured big bucks in areas closed to hunting. Once they had identified a target buck, Zorda posed as a wildlife photographer using a cropped photo of a woman as a profile picture to contact other photographers to learn the exact locations of these animals. The network also targeted shed hunting pages to isolate certain locations.
“The social media aspect is something I have seen having an impact on how poachers can locate large deer," Mathis said. "Someone will innocently post a photo of a deer in their back yard or around the neighborhood and people can figure out where that deer is very easily.”
To sneak into areas undetected, Zorda and Butler would hide compact bows in backpacks and conceal their arrows in hollow walking sticks to look like hikers to any witnesses.
Butler caught on a trail camera; image courtesy of New York DEC.
Though investigators suspect the men were involved in other deer poaching incidents, the evidence uncovered in this investigation resulted in two charges. The men pleaded guilty in December of 2023 to two misdemeanor counts of taking deer in a closed area, paid $1,075 in fines and surcharges, and had their hunting licenses revoked for five years.
The DEC reports that other individuals were implicated in the warrants, and those investigations are ongoing. Mathis has been with New York DEC’s Division of Law Enforcement for 16 years and his supervisor, Captain Joshua VerHague, has been with DLE for 19 years. Both officers told MeatEater they have never heard of or seen such an elaborate poaching scheme in their careers.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated with quotations from Lt. Shea Mathis and additional information provided by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Feature Image: Zorda poses with deer taken illegally in Erie County; image courtesy of New York DEC.