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Social media leads to illegal poaching ring

Posted at 10:45 PM, Mar 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-02 10:41:10-05

When Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe, the world was in an uproar.  But what about animals here in our own state? They're often the target of illegal hunting. 

Contact 13's Darcy Spears looks into a years-long investigation of a wildlife poaching ring being called one of the worst cases in Nevada history.

The hills just a couple of hours north of Las Vegas are home to much of Nevada's wildlife, including deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep.

But those hills also harbor a secret: an entire world of illegal activity that's the biggest crime against animals in our state.

Just outside the town of Hiko is where the gruesome case started to unfold -- a case that broke not in the wild, but in the digital world.

"Two doe deer were poached -- killed -- and the photographs were posted on Facebook. And that was the start of this whole investigation that turned into a case that got international attention," explained Nevada Department of Wildlife Game Warden John Anderson.
Photos on social media led to search warrants and more evidence in what Department of Wildlife called "a bottomless supply of wildlife crime."

"They had killed animals almost in every corner of the state of Nevada," said Anderson.

His investigation led to a trio of poachers.

RELATED: Read the full report here

"It just seemed the more we dug into people's Facebook profiles, the more and more we saw that they were literal serial wildlife killers."

Online, a photo shows one of the men with an illegally killed pelican.

In Hiko, game wardens searched a house where they seized deer meat from a freezer, guns, a bloody hatchet and several dead songbirds.
Then, clues led them to a house in Las Vegas where they found a refrigerator full of a large amount of deer meat, including what appeared to be a deer head, along with a large number of game birds.

Poaching is a crime so vast in the state of Nevada that during the high season authorities are often investigating multiple cases a day, there are hundreds of cases each year.  

And that upsets the folks who live in the areas where it happens.

"Our whole town lives for hunting," said Hiko-area resident Michelle Highbee.

She says many of her friends hunt to feed their families.

"But they do it legally."

She's disgusted with criminals who don't follow the rules.

"We have seen actual carcasses that they did not harvest anything off of it. Not even the antlers. Nothing. So why'd they kill it? It was just to shoot it for fun, I guess."

The three suspects in the poaching case were convicted in several Nevada counties. They also faced federal weapons charges.

And the man tasked with hunting the hunters knows they're not alone.

"I feel like this just scratches the surface of serial wildlife poaching cases that could be happening in all of the state," said Game Warden Anderson.

Worldwide, the U.S. State Department says wildlife trafficking is a $10 billion per year criminal trade, putting it up there with drugs and gun-running.

Here in Nevada, Anderson says most crimes he investigates appear to be purely for blood-sport as many of the animal carcasses are left to rot.