Van Buren County man charged with poaching 9 trophy bucks

The Detroit News

A Van Buren County man has been charged with illegally taking nine trophy bucks, the Department of Natural Resources said Thursday. 

Police discovered nine poached bucks in a barn in Decatur when they were investigating a domestic violence complaint on Oct. 17, according to a DNR release, after which they alerted conservation officers with the DNR. 

Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur faces up to $59,500 in reimbursement to the state if convicted. He was arraigned on Nov. 9 in 7th District Court in Paw Paw. He is free on bond and scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 20. 

Eight of the nine sets of deer antlers 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.

Gary Stewart, an attorney listed in court records as representing Ernst, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

When conservation Officers Matt Page and Tyler Cole arrived at the barn where Ernst was said to spend time, he had yet to be located by law enforcement following the domestic violence complaint, the DNR release said.

The homeowner told conservation officers that Ernst often stayed out all night and returned the next morning with a new buck, the DNR said.

After receiving the homeowner's permission to "search anywhere," Page and Cole located and seized eight illegal bucks in the barn. 

Two days later, Page received a tip from the DNR's Report All Poaching hotline that Ernst had been arrested on Oct. 18 and was being held at the Van Buren County Jail for the Oct. 17 domestic violence charge. The tipster also reported that there was another buck in the barn.

Another carcass was found there, a 9-point buck that appeared to have been shot within the previous 48 hours.

Ernst is suspected of driving his truck through fields and shining and shooting deer, and has a prior DNR conviction from 2018 for illegally taking or possessing whitetail deer.

Fifteen charges are pending against Ernst: two counts of firearm possession by a felon; two felony firearms violations; one count of hunting with a revoked license; one count of applying for or obtaining a hunting license when ineligible; and nine counts of taking game illegally among others. 

At the jail, the release said, Page and Conservation Officer Travis Dragomer interviewed Ernst, who denied any connection to the poached bucks. He said he could not hunt because his hunting license had been revoked.

After executing an Oct. 20 search warrant, Page, Cole and other officers found two shotguns, a crossbow, a bloody crossbow bolt from the bed of Ernst's vehicle, a cellphone that didn't work and a handheld spotlight located under the driver's seat of Ernst's vehicle, the DNR said.