Van Buren County man who poached trophy bucks faces prison

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Van Buren County man charged with illegally taking trophy bucks last year faces prison time and no longer can hunt in the state, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said Wednesday. 

Justin Ernst, 33, pleaded guilty Monday in 36th Circuit Court in Van Buren County in southwest Michigan to one count of felon in possession of a firearm, one count of obtaining a hunting license when ineligible and three counts of illegal taking/possessing whitetail deer.

Eight of the nine sets of deer antlers authorities said were poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. Ernst pleaded guilty Monday to three counts of illegally poaching deer.

As part of his plea deal, the Decatur resident was given a lifetime hunting revocation, ordered to pay $25,000 in reimbursement, forfeited seized items and is slated to serve between 18 months and five years in a Michigan Department of Corrections facility, state officials said.

“We’re satisfied that this criminal will be imprisoned for robbing ethical hunters, damaging crops and endangering others by recklessly driving through fields and shooting deer at night,” said David Shaw, assistant chief at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division. “We hope this serious sentence serves its intended purpose and are grateful for the strong message rendered by the 36th Circuit Court.”

Michigan State Police had been investigating Ernst's involvement in a domestic violence complaint on Oct. 17 when they found deer in a barn he frequented and alerted DNR conservation officers.

The officers investigated and seized eight illegal bucks in the barn: five 10-pointers and three with eight points each, the DNR said.

Two days later, an anonymous tip to the DNR's Report All Poaching hotline reported Ernst had taken another buck, the department said.

Ernst had a prior DNR conviction from 2018 for illegally taking or possessing whitetail deer, according to state authorities.