By JIM ABRAMS

Over the years, folks have often asked me if there is really a poaching problem in Ohio. They were always surprised at my answer that there is an issue, but that it tends to be invisible.

That invisibility comes from people not understanding the problem or its potential reach and impact. They also don’t recognize the signs that it’s going on around them. Witnessed violations are often shrugged off and not reported or, if so, with scant useful details.

I’ve too often heard, “I don’t want to get involved,” “It’s not that big of a deal” or “It doesn’t concern me.” It’s important to know that it does go on, it reaches into every county, it’s dangerous for both people and wildlife, and it should concern you.

Now, the Ohio Division of Wildlife has wrapped up Operation North Coast, a wildlife investigation that is considered the largest case in the division’s 146-year history, and it happened next door.

Culminating in March 2016 with the service and execution of search and arrest warrants along with dozens of simultaneously run suspect and witness interviews, the investigation grew like corn after a warm summer rain.

The case concerned the illegal taking and sales of sport fish and whitetail deer products in the counties bordering Ohio’s northern border, including: Wood, Ottawa, Lucas, Lorain and Cuyahoga while going inland to Richland. The investigation took 2½ years to complete.

The disgraceful poachers nabbed during Operation North Coast included northwest Ohio residents from Henry, Lucas and Wood as well as other Ohio counties. In all, 46 shameful poachers were charged with 91 felonies and 73 misdemeanors; slammed with $131,763 in fines and restitution; sentenced to 8.6 years of jail with the majority suspended; received 79 years of hunting and fishing revocation; and paid more than $18,000 in court costs.

Let’s touch on a few of North Coast’s highlights:

Nine nauseating poachers, including one in Wood County and eight in Cuyahoga County, were charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and associated crimes for operating as a criminal enterprise. Members of the group took deer illegally, often not tagging or reporting the harvests as required. They created false harvest records by checking deer in the names of others to cover illegally taken deer meat and antlers. The deer meat was laundered into venison “smokies” that were sold or bartered for taxidermy and other services.

In Cuyahoga County, three malevolent poachers harvested 39 deer, including 22 antlered bucks during the two-year investigation. They’d have their spouses and family members commit communications fraud and falsify records in the Division of Wildlife’s game-check system. The venison was then taken to Smokin’ T’s, a meat processor in Ashtabula County, for processing.

Approximately 2,000 pounds of illegal venison passed through Smokin’ T’s meat processing. The owner and company were charged with money laundering for converting the venison into products that were later sold. The racketeering cases in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court were the last to conclude. Assistant Prosecutor James Gutierrez called the group “racketeers in camouflage.”

In Wood County, mendacious poachers killed deer illegally and had others commit communications fraud, a third-degree felony, by reporting the harvest as their own in the state’s game-check system. One despicable poacher was charged with 16 counts, including the following felonies: engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, felony sales of wildlife, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle, tampering with records, and drug abuse.

He was also charged with six misdemeanors, including possessing weapons while intoxicated, licensing violations, improper handling of a firearm and three counts of selling venison. This scoundrel pleaded to 10 of the charges and served 22 months in prison. He paid $5,513.03 in restitution and has lost his privilege to hunt, fish and trap until 2035.

An additional 21 of his devious accomplices were charged with 39 crimes, including misdemeanor purchases of processed venison, providing false information to the division’s game-check system, possessing weapons under a firearms disability, tampering with records, and hunting without permission.

In one weird twist, two lying poachers committed theft by deception when they entered and won a walleye tournament on the Maumee River. The fish they’d entered had actually been caught on Lake Erie, yet they entered the fish and won $375 in prize money. In addition to their $250 fine and 30-day suspended jail sentence, the two had to reimburse Maumee River Bait and Tackle for the prize money.

In Lorain County, two poaching ne’er-do-wells sold more than 100 pounds of sport-caught perch, walleye and white bass to investigators, which is a felony. The cheaters pleaded out on the indictments and were ordered to pay $13,200 in restitution. Both lost their fishing privileges for one year.

Also charged in Lorain County were two loathsome poachers for felony sales of deer meat. Investigators documented the pair selling processed deer products from a storefront they owned. The two pleaded to the cases, paying a total of $5,003.30; one losing hunting and fishing rights for six years, the other for three.

In Richland County, one abysmal poacher was charged with three felony counts of selling yellow perch fillets. During the investigation, he was documented six times of overharvesting yellow perch on Lake Erie, at times more than twice the daily bag limit. He would then clean and sell the fish.

His attorney challenged the state’s wildlife restitution law to the appeals court, but the court ruled in favor of Ohio’s wildlife, supporting the legal process used to establish the values of wild animals. The netted angler was sentenced to pay $6,120 in restitution for the value of the yellow perch and two years of probation.

Following the initial warrants and interviews, officers conducted approximately 200 interviews, executed additional search warrants, examined hundreds of digital and physical evidence items that were seized, and attended over 100 court hearings. Seized items included one vehicle, 96 deer and turkey mounts, 35 sets of antlers, more than 200 pounds of filleted sportfish and 400 pounds of deboned venison and processed deer meat.

Items forfeited to ODNR by the courts included: three vehicles; approximately 100 deer mounts and antlers/skull plates; taxidermy mounts of turkeys, two bobcats, an owl and chipmunks; freezers containing hundreds of pounds of deboned and processed venison; crossbows; and wild game processing equipment.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Arthur Conan Doyle

“Hunters don’t endanger wildlife; indifference and ignorance are the killers.” — Anonymous

Step outside:

• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.

• Wednesday: Wildlife Council meeting, 6:30 p.m., Wildlife District One office, 1500 Dublin Road, Columbus.

• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.

• Tomorrow: Winter Trap League begins, Fostoria United Sportsmen’s Club, 1324 U.S. 23 N, Fostoria. League will run for six Sundays, with no early sign-up required. A five-person squad is required to shoot. Practice opens at 9 a.m. and the event begins at 10 a.m. Email fostoriasportsmen@gmail.com or call 419-435-4953 for information.

• Feb. 16: Third annual sportsmen’s banquet, 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Heritage Christian Union Church, 15738 Ohio 37, Forest. Enjoy vendors, displays, dinner and door prizes at this family-friendly event. Three Canadian fishing trips will be given away as grand prizes. Music will begin at 3 p.m. with service following. All events are free and the public is invited. For information, call 419-273-2089.

• March 23 to 25: NRA Shooting Range Development and Operations Conference, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. https://rangeservices.nra.org/development-training/range-development-operations-conference

Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com

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