Southwest Michigan Man Charged With Poaching Deer – 9 Remarkable Trophy Bucks Taken

Michigan Conservation Officers

A southwest Michigan man has been charged with poaching deer. Nine poached trophy quality bucks were discovered in a Decatur barn when police were investigating a domestic abuse allegation in October.

The unlawful trophy deer belonged to a previously convicted offender who is accused of driving his truck through fields, shining, and killing deer, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officials.

If convicted of the more than a dozen crimes he was charged with, Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur, could be fined up to $59,500 by the state. On November 9th, he was arraigned in Paw Paw’s 7th District Court.

Cover Photo: Conservation Officers Tyler Cole, left, and Matt Page with eight deer heads that were suspected to have been poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. Page located the ninth deer that Ernst took, two days later. Ernst is a convicted felon who is believed to have driven around fields at night, shining and shooting deer. Ernst faces over $59,000 in reimbursement and is scheduled to reappear in court on Dec. 20.

Suspect Has Been Charged With Poaching Deer Before

Ernst was previously convicted by the Department of Natural Resources in 2018 for illegally capturing or possessing whitetail deer. Possession of methamphetamine or ecstasy, third-degree evading a police officer, and third offense (felony) operating a car while intoxicated is among Ernst’s previous felony offenses.

“It’s a shame that this criminal ruined the chance for ethical, legal hunters to have their opportunity to take one of these trophy deer,” said Lt. Gerald Thayer, of the Michigan DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Not only did this felon steal from the natural resource, but he also damaged agriculture crops, and has been doing so for some time. The financial penalty is the minimum he should serve.”

Ernst is facing 15 charges from the Department of Natural Resources.:

  • Two counts of firearm possession by a felon.
  • Two felony firearms violations.
  • One count of hunting with a revoked hunting license.
  • One count of applying for, or obtaining, a hunting license when ineligible.
  • Nine counts of taking game illegally.

Poaching Evidents Mounts Up on Ernst

Eight of the nine sets of deer antlers were suspected of being poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. Ernst faces over $59,000 in reimbursement to the state, if convicted, for the suspected poaching of nine bucks. He is scheduled to reappear in court on Dec. 20.

On October 17th, DNR Conservation Officers Matt Page and Tyler Cole got a report from Michigan State Police that many deer were observed in a barn where Ernst spends time while troopers were investigating a domestic abuse allegation involving Ernst.

Page and Cole arrived at the house shortly after getting the tip to inspect the deer. Following the domestic violence accusation, law police had yet to find Ernst.

The homeowner informed the conservation officers that Ernst was suspected of being high on methamphetamine. They were also told that he frequently stays out all night and that there was always a fresh buck in the stable the next morning.

After obtaining authorization from the owners to “search anyplace,” Page and Cole discovered and confiscated eight illegal bucks in the barn, including five 10-pointers and three 8-pointers.

Domestic Violence Call Prompt Poaching Tip

Page got word from the DNR’s Report All Poaching hotline two days later that Ernst had been arrested on Oct. 18 and was being detained in the Van Buren County prison for his domestic violence charge from the previous day. There was apparently another buck in the barn, according to the tip.

Page went to the house and asked the owners for permission to check the barn once again. He discovered a 9-point deer that had been shot within the last 48 hours.

Page spoke with two more witnesses while examining the barn. Ernst was seen earlier that month with a dead deer in the back of his truck, according to one witness. That morning, the second witness had discovered the 9-point deer.

Page and Conservation Officer Travis Dragomer interrogated Ernst at the prison, and he denied any involvement with the poached bucks. He said that his hunting license had been revoked, therefore he couldn’t go hunting.

Search Warrant Yields More Evidence

Justin Ernst, 33, Decatur faces over $59,000 in reimbursement to the state, if convicted, for the suspected poaching of nine bucks in Van Buren County. He is scheduled to reappear in court on Dec. 20.

Page, Cole, Dragomer, and Conservation Officers Zach Bauer and Sgt. Steve Mooney executed a search warrant on Oct. 20. During their search, they discovered two shotguns and a crossbow, as well as a bloodied crossbow bolt from Ernst’s vehicle’s bed, a dead smartphone, and a small spotlight hidden behind the driver’s seat.

Ernst has been released on bail and is due back in court on December 20th.

Conservation officers in Michigan have fully commissioned law enforcement officers that safeguard natural resources, maintain recreational safety, and protect citizens in their communities by enforcing general laws and undertaking lifesaving operations. More information is available at

FAQ Deer Poaching Information, Penalties and Fines

How to Poach Deer At Night

Poaching deer at night is typically done in a vehicle with a strong handheld spotlight. Deer will temporarily standstill when shined with a bright light. Once the deer is dazzled by the spotlight, they will approach your vehicle. They seem to gravitate toward the light for some reason. This allows the poacher an easy shot. To avoid attracting attention poachers will use a bow and arrow, a crossbow, or a small-caliber rifle to kill the deer.

What is the Penalty for Poaching Deer?

While penalties vary by state and circumstance the penalty for poaching deer can include arrest, immediate incarceration, fines, restitution, loss of the hunting privilege, loss of your firearm, loss of the vehicle used, and any deer in your possession. You could spend up to 90 days in jail. While the crime of poaching is a misdemeanor the fines can be extremely steep.

What are the Fines For Poaching Deer in Michigan?

Deer poaching carries a restitution fine of $1,000 or $2,000 for an antlered deer. For 8-10-point dollars, there is an extra $500 each point, and for 11 or more-point bucks, there is an additional $750 per point. In 2015, a Michigan hunter received a $15,000 punishment after bagging an 18-point buck.

Source: Poaching in Michigan: Crimes, Penalties & Defense

Mikki Smith

Mikki is a graduate of Indian River State College and currently living and working in Isreal as a developer of AI chatbots for the travel industry. She writes part-time and is working on her first book about chatbot development.

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