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Van Buren County man gets jail time and fines, plus lifetime loss of hunting privileges after poaching trophy bucks

cole and page

A Decatur, Michigan, man's unethical hunting activity has resulted in prison time, financial restitution and lifetime loss of hunting privileges in the state. Justin Ernst, 33, pleaded guilty Monday in Van Buren County's 36th Circuit Court after illegally taking nine trophy bucks last year.

"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, 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."

On Oct. 17, Michigan State Police troopers were investigating Ernst's involvement in a domestic violence complaint. State police contacted DNR conservation officers when they noticed several deer in a nearby barn where Ernst reportedly spent a significant amount of time.

Conservation officers investigated and seized eight illegal bucks in the barn - five 10-pointers and three with eight points each.

Two days later, an anonymous tip to the DNR's Report All Poaching hotline stated that Ernst had taken another deer. Conservation officers confirmed that Ernst had taken another trophy buck - increasing his total to nine illegally taken deer.

Ernst pleaded guilty to:

  • Felon in possession of a firearm (one count).
  • Obtaining a hunting license when ineligible (one count).
  • Illegal taking/possessing whitetail deer (three counts).

As part of his plea deal, Ernst was given a lifetime hunting revocation, ordered to pay $25,000 in reimbursement, forfeited all seized items, and will serve 18 months to five years in a Michigan Department of Corrections facility.

To report poaching or other suspected natural resources violations, call the Report All Poaching hotline at 800-292-7800, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hiring for 2022 academy

If you or someone you know is interested in a career protecting Michigan's fish and game and outdoor places and the people who enjoy them, take a moment to explore information about the DNR's upcoming conservation officer academy. Applications will be accepted until March 31.

Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned law enforcement officers who provide natural resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect residents through general law enforcement and conducting lifesaving operations in the communities they serve.

Contact a recruiter or learn more at Michigan.gov/ConservationOfficers.


Note to editors: Accompanying photos are available below for download. Caption information follows.

Officers: Conservation Officers Tyler Cole, left, and Matt Page with the heads of eight deer poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur, Michigan, in October. Two days later, officers located a ninth deer that Ernst poached. 

Truck: Justin Ernst, 33, Decatur, pleaded guilty to poaching nine trophy bucks back in October.

Antlers: Eight of the nine sets of deer antlers poached by Justin Ernst, 33, of Decatur. Conservation officers discovered Ernst poached a ninth deer, two days after locating the original eight deer.

Contact: Lt. Gerald Thayer, 269-204-7045