Six people are facing a series of criminal charges after a multi-agency investigation linked them to more than 100 poaching-related violations in Vermont and New Hampshire.
According to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife (VFW), which led a joint investigation with the assistance of New Hampshire conservation officers and special agents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the men they are accused of poaching 14 whitetail deer in Vermont. during the fall of 2021.
“This case involved seven separate search warrants to include residences, vehicles and cellular devices,” said Sgt. Robert L. Currier, a VFW detective watchdog and the lead investigator on the case told MeatEater. “We were able to execute five of the arrest warrants on the same day with over 30 rangers and special agents involved.”
While the suspected poachers were arrested and charged in Vermont, the months-long investigation turned up similar crimes in neighboring New Hampshire. Charges in the Granite state are still pending court proceedings, but according to New Hampshire Conservation Officer Heidi Murphy, several of the same suspects are also accused of taking illegal four dollars in that state.
“His violations stretched from the Sunapee region to Lyme, New Hampshire,” Murphy told MeatEater. “We present four people with more than 20 violations. Two were from New Hampshire and two were from Vermont.”
According to Murphy, federal authorities became involved in the case when it became clear that the suspects had violated the Lacey Act.
The brainchild of a conservation luminary named John F. Lacey, the Lacey Act prohibits the transportation of illegally captured wildlife across state lines. It was introduced by Lacey in the last years of the 19th century and signed into law by President William McKinley in May 1900.
The alleged poachers in this case ran afoul of the Lacey Act when they began bringing some of their whitetails killed in Vermont to New Hampshire for false registration.
“Two deer that were killed in Vermont were transported to New Hampshire for registration,” Murphy said. “The FWS got involved because that is considered a violation of the Lacey Act.”
The defendants in the case are: Zackery Baxter, 26, of Sharon, VT; Jeffrey Degrasse, 26, of Hartford, VT; Kobe Labonte, 22, of White River Junction, VT; Casey Thayer, 27, of Hartford, VT; and Patrick Whitcomb, 24, of Hartford, VT. There is an additional person facing charges in New Hampshire whose name has not yet been released.
All of the men named above appeared in a Vermont court on April 26, 2022 to face charges including feeding deer, taking deer during closed season, possession of illegal deer, transportation of illegal deer, failure to tag large game and providing false information to police officers.
“At their court date on April 26, Mr. Baxter and Mr. Degrasse pleaded not guilty to all charges,” read a press release issued by VFW. “Mister. [Thayer] He pleaded guilty to deer hunting in the closed season, illegal deer transportation and illegal deer possession. He will be fined $1,821, pay $500 in restitution for the deer, be required to lose his crossbow and be required to complete 9-10 days of duty on the task force. Mr. Labonte pleaded guilty to hunting deer during the closed season. He will be fined $607. Mr. Whitcomb pleaded guilty to deer hunting in the closed season and unlawful possession of deer. He will be fined $1,214, pay $500 in restitution for the deer, and be required to forfeit his crossbow.”
VFW officials say the illegal taking of so many deer will have an adverse effect on the population dynamics of the area’s carefully managed deer herds.
“It will take three to four years for the deer population in Windsor County to recruit additional mature males and replace those that were illegally taken this fall,” VFW Wildlife Division Director Mark Scott said in the report. Press release. “Poaching on this scale is a blow to both the local deer herd and Vermont’s culture of fair and equitable access to publicly trusted wildlife.”
According to Currier, the activity of the accused poachers may have gone unnoticed had it not been for tips submitted to the VFW by several concerned poachers last fall.
“This research was only made possible by conservation-minded hunter councils alerting rangers to poaching in their communities,” he said. “His actions and ethics highlight the contrast between real hunters and poachers.”