For years the floor show--rather, the parking-lot show--at the High Elevations Bar & Restaurant in the busy northeastern Pennsylvania village of White Haven starred Teddy, a bigger-than-average black bear that Dumpster-dived, chased his butt in circles and all but rode a tiny bicycle. That is, until some crackpot with a crossbow shot the 600-lb. (about 270 kg) creature dead early on the morning of Sept. 12. "Just a shame," says Tim Conway, a wildlife-conservation officer with the Pennsylvania game commission. "You always wonder who could do something like that."
Poachers usually practice their barbaric craft off the beaten track, but lately brazen killers like Teddy's are notching up their bloody game, moving closer to residential areas and placing critters of all kinds squarely in their sights. A few months ago, a mammoth white-tailed deer was found slaughtered--its antler rack carved out of its head--in the Pinery, a cushy bedroom community a few miles southeast of Denver. In Des Moines, Iowa, two men from Arkansas were convicted of illegally hunting trophy-size deer at the local airport. And poachers with crossbows built a tree stand in a public park in Redwood City, Calif., scattered bait and waited for black-tailed deer to mosey by. "Poachers show no lack of guts. There are no rules they won't break," says Craig Lonneman, a conservation officer with the Iowa division of natural resources. "It always seems that they know where the animals are."
As development spreads--79% of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau--more animals are losing their natural habitat, and so are forced to trade open land for golf courses and the backyards of greenbelt communities like the 1,850-home Pinery. That not only leads to more human-animal confrontations but also opens up opportunities for poachers to track elk, mountain lion, antelope, black bear and deer.
Wildlife officials estimate that the number of poached animals matches the amount of game legally taken each year. "It's becoming more of a huge issue every year," says Lieut. John Nores of the California division of fish and game. "These guys are so good at playing this game, and they know how to take advantage of the public's general lack of awareness of what they're up to."
The perps, according to game officials, are usually seasoned hunters from all walks of life who can afford customized Browning rifles, Leupold scopes and $800 Excalibur crossbows. They're wily and they're stealthy, like the deer stalker Nores apprehended a few years ago. He was trawling Saratoga, Calif., an enclave of million-dollar homes, in his wife's new Honda, a $2,000 rifle and low-noise ammo hidden under his kids' coloring books in the backseat. "Sometimes it's almost like an addiction with these guys," says Nores.
If they're not in it for the thrill of the kill, poachers are often bent on making some money. Bighorn-sheep horns, for example, can bring up to $60,000 on the U.S. black market; a large, balanced set of elk antlers, $10,000. In Japan, black bear gallbladders, treasured as an aphrodisiac, are literally worth their weight in gold. The illegal reptile, amphibian and snake markets in Southern California and Florida have been growing as well because of heightened collector demand in Asia.
Outnumbered wildlife officials have a tough go of it. Being in the right place at the right time is a game of long odds, and some poaching investigations take years to complete. Most states have set up hotlines so the public can phone in tips. And Utah's division of wildlife resources is experimentally placing cameras in trees along some heavily traveled trails.
In Colorado a hunter convicted of a "willful destruction of big game" felony can get six years in jail and $20,000 in fines. The reward for nailing the Pinery's deer slayer: $10,000. "Folks are concerned," says Joe Narracci, president of the local homeowner's association. "Who knows when they could be sitting out on their deck and get hit with a stray bullet ... Can you imagine that happening to a child?"
Back in White Haven, Teddy was probably too large for his assassin to cart off or butcher on the spot, which rubs restaurant manager Lisa Fisher raw. "[The poacher] was on our property when he killed that bear," she huffs. "Teddy never bothered anyone. He'd make a mess; we'd clean it up. Our customers just loved him."