SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A 70-year-old Sacramento County man will pay a $20,000 fine after pleading no contest to shooting a trophy buck out of season on property he owns in rural El Dorado County.

The hefty fine is one of the first under a law passed in 2017 that allowed judges to slap poachers with bigger penalties if they’re convicted of illegally killing deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and wild turkey with certain characteristics such as big antlers that classify them as trophy animals.

The case began in 2017 when state game warden Dave Moskat drove by property William Vaden of Elverta owns southeast of Placerville near the community of Somerset, said Lt. Stacey LaFave of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Moskat was en route to another poaching complaint when he spotted an automated animal feeder on Vaden’s property, LaFave said.

In California, it’s illegal for a hunter to lure deer and other game animals using bait in feeders, so Moskat kept an eye on the property — and on Vaden’s online hunting records, LaFave said.

California deer hunters are required to carry a hunting permit known as a “deer tag” issued by the wildlife agency. After making a kill, they must bring the animal to a state, federal or local official to sign the tag. Then, they’re required to make a formal report to the state describing the buck’s antlers and the location where it was killed. Game wardens have access to those online tag report records.

In 2018, after the state’s deer-hunting season had closed, Moskat noticed that Vaden had reported killing a large four-point buck at the end of the season. Suspecting Vaden had killed the buck as it stood at the feeder, he took a fellow warden, Erick Elliott, to question him, LaFave said.

After a lengthy interrogation, Vaden admitted to the wardens he had killed the buck at the bait site after the season had ended and had forged an official’s signature on his deer tag, LaFave said.

Vaden and his Sacramento attorney, James Granucci, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Vaden pleaded no contest Feb. 4 in El Dorado County Superior Court to misdemeanor charges related to baiting the deer and killing it out of season. Under his plea agreement, he’s prohibited from hunting for the three years he’s on probation. He’ll serve 90 days of “alternative sentencing” and the state took the rifle he used to kill the buck.

The trophy enhancement penalty of $20,000 represents a substantial increase in what a typical poaching case normally would garner. Because they’re infractions and misdemeanors, most hunting violations carry maximum cash penalties of no more than $1,000.

Wildlife officers, animal rights groups and hunting associations across the country have lobbied for larger fines in poaching cases, both to act as deterrents and to encourage prosecutors to aggressively pursue them.

LaFave said he’s been thrilled to see El Dorado County’s District Attorney prosecute a number of similar cases aggressively the last few years.

“To hammer poachers and get the kinds of fines and dispositions and some of the (property) forfeitures, we’re getting,” LaFave said, “it’s just a win-win for everybody.”

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