A Sublette County teacher who poached a uniquely antlered trophy mule deer buck on winter range out of season in late 2015 has been handed a sentence that includes jail time.
Nate Strong, who works at Big Piney High School and coaches the boys basketball team, was days away from a jury trial when he agreed to a plea deal for nearly $10,000 in fines, up to 10 days in jail and a seven-year loss of hunting and fishing privileges. If Strong completes 50 hours of community service, the jail time will be cut to five days.
Strong had a whitetail license and said his shooting of the mule deer was a mistake.
The sentence is “pretty consistent” with what poachers typically see when their violation falls within Wyoming statute 23-3-102(d), which comes down particularly hard on those who illegally kill antlered animals, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Regional Supervisor John Lund said.
“The violation itself is serious,” Lund said. “We put a lot of effort in patrolling those winter ranges, and when somebody is convicted of taking basically any antlered animal outside of a season or without a license, that’s where this statute comes in.
“It’s different than just shooting a deer out of season or without a license,” he said. “Penalties associated with that are extremely stiff. We have cases like this in the Pinedale area almost every year, and this sentence is pretty consistent with the others we’ve had in the past.”
The mule buck Strong killed and tagged with a valid whitetail deer license had antlers in a big way. Using the Boone and Crockett scoring system, the “nontypical” rack measured out at 230 points, which is a score rarely reached.
“By anyone’s standards,” Lund said, “that’s an extremely large deer.”
Taking the head mount of the trophy deer to the 2016 Hunting Expo in Salt Lake City is what snared Strong. Taxidermy on the animal also took place in Utah.
An expo attendee recognized the distinctive antlers on the animal, which before death was a summertime denizen of the Hoback Ranches neighborhood below the Rim. Strong shot the deer after it had migrated closer to Big Piney, Lund said.
A tip came in to Game and Fish wardens, who learned that the trophy buck had been photographed in 2015 after the mule deer season closed.
Strong and his attorneys argued that the deer he’d shot was a mule/whitetail deer hybrid.
Strong, in an interview, reiterated that view Thursday.
“When I got up to it, from the shoulders up I didn’t see any whitetail characteristics, but the tail to me was about as whitetail as any whitetail I’ve seen,” Strong said.
“I should have called the Game and Fish officer and had him come and look at it at the time,” he said. “That’s where I guess I made a bad mistake.”
Lund said that the mule deer had “no characteristics” of being a hybrid. Forensic tests proved the animal’s genetic purity.
Lund thanked Hoback Ranches residents who kept tabs on the mule deer for helping make the case.
“We hate to see this happen, but we certainly appreciate the public stepping forward and helping us out,” Lund said. “That’s without a doubt what set this case off and got it going.”
Strong said that in his mind the plea bargain was not an omission of deliberate poaching, but, rather, an agreement that he entered into for pragmatic reasons. He’d already racked up $16,000 in legal fees and didn’t want to risk the maximum sentence before a jury.
“If I was a single man I probably would have [gone to trial], but I got four kids and wife, and 50 days in jail — you could risk your job, and other things,” Strong said.