RED FLAGS BEGAN TO FLUTTER the moment I first heard that ABC planned to broadcast a prime time poaching feature on its “Day One” news program. The show’s focus, I learned, would be convicted poacher Donald Eugene Lewis, the man whose personal quest for bowhunting fame and fortune transformed this likeable and friendly Alabama redhead into a scofflaw killing machine.
It wasn’t that I fretted over Lewis being publicly censured for his poaching crimes. What caused my stomach to churn was the fact that he’d be identified as “a bow and arrow hunter” to millions of non-hunting television viewers. Indeed, bowhunting’s image was likely to take a major hit, thanks to the mindless criminal acts of one man.
I said as much to “Day One” producer Kevin Cosgrove when he called my Montana home to discuss my personal and professional thoughts about Lewis. “He deserves anything he gets,” I said, “but this guy is no bowhunter. He’s a poacher. You need to be fair and make the differences clear.”
Cosgrove sounded sincere when he promised fairness in reporting the Lewis case; however, doubts still lingered. Damning images from Dan Rather’s “The Guns of Autumn” hatchet job on hunting still flickered across my mind’s eye. After all, the national media are not known as a particularly hunter-friendly group.
“Think about interviewing someone who can speak for bowhunting,” I urged Cosgrove. And I passed along the names of several prominent bowhunters for him to consider. Just before hanging up, Cosgrove thanked me for my input and again promised a fair report. I remember sitting there staring at my telephone, wishing I’d never heard of Don Lewis.
“Lewis didn’t care what was legal. He was obsessed with becoming a hunting superstar.”
— From “Poachers’ Paradise,” “Day One” broadcast, 1994
LOOKING BACK, IT’S EASY to read the warning signs. After all, even Howard Hill – the greatest Alabama-born bowhunter of them all – couldn’t amass such a mind-boggling collection of Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer antlers. Yet between 1983 and 1991, Don Lewis routinely traveled west from his Dixieland home and year after year killed bulls and bucks larger than most bowbenders will ever see during their lifetimes.
The Don Lewis secret to such amazing success was simple, really. Ignore open seasons and bag limits. Poach semi-tame animals living in or around national parks and other protected areas where no hunting is allowed.
Joel Scrafford, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) senior agent in Wyoming and Montana, investigated the case and reported that Lewis began poaching in Yellowstone National Park in the early ’80s. He continued his annual killing forays right up until the time of his deer poaching arrest in Utah in 1991. At that time Scrafford called the Don Lewis case “… the most blatant example of trophy poaching that I have encountered in my 30 years investigating wildlife crime.”
Yet while some people harbored their suspicions about Lewis, until ’91 he covered his tracks well, winning over many with his amiable manner and friendly smile. Success photos of the Alabaman and his outsized critters were cropping up with increasing regularity in bowhunting magazines and archery product catalogs. Petersen’s Bowhunting had labeled him “Mr. Big Bucks” in 1990; another magazine dubbed Lewis “Master of the Mega-Muley.” One photo of him with a big black bear was published in Bowhunter magazine.
A Browning Archery catalog featuring “grip and grin” field photos of Lewis posing behind several of his kills stated: “We are again amazed at the incredible success of Browning staffer Don Lewis. He simply lives to hunt and will settle for no less than the best equipment.”
In one of his early letters to Browning, Lewis reportedly claimed that he would be listed with more Pope & Young Club record book entries for elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope than any hunter in history. He also claimed to have arrowed record book whitetails, cougar, black bears and grizzly bears. Stated goals were to earn a six-figure income from hunting and to become the first bowhunter to take a record book animal of each North American big game species recognized by P&Y. Lewis claimed already to have killed more than 50 “record book qualifiers.”
In truth, not one of his animals was ever officially scored or entered in the Pope & Young Club or Boone & Crockett Club’s big game records program.
THE LEWIS POACHING SPREE finally ended on Nov. 8, 1991 when warden Scott White checked a suspicious pickup while on patrol in south Utah’s famed Paunsaugant trophy mule deer area. In the truck were the antlers and cape of a freshly killed muley wearing an Arizona tag. Driver Don Lewis said that he’d killed the buck just across the state line and was now scouting for next year’s Utah deer season. Although suspicious, the warden finally allowed Lewis to drive away.
Short hours later, after a headless mule deer carcass turned up in the same general Kane County area, an alert was issued for Don Lewis. Later in the day wildlife officers found Lewis’ camp along with three untagged sets of large mule deer antlers and four capes. Don Lewis was arrested immediately. Charges included everything from wanton waste of venison to unlawful killing of deer during a closed season. Additionally, the pickup truck and its contents were confiscated. Included among the items seized were two very interesting videotapes.
One contained footage of Don Lewis killing two giant muley bucks at a watering tank. The other featured video images of Lewis and Arthur Sims, an Alabama hunting buddy, calling and arrowing big bull elk. With apparent ease. Time after time.
In one gut-twisting sequence, a nice bull answers bugles and cow calls. An arrow buries itself in the elk’s side and the bull crashes off. But more calling brings the wounded bull back within easy bow range. A second arrow strikes the bull mere inches from the first. Again the elk gallops away. Unbelievably, the hard-hit bull is called back a third time, broadside to the camera, two arrows jutting from its side. And a third shot hits home …
What the hell is going on here? Puzzled wildlife officials pored over the footage for obvious clues. Besides a lot of typical elk terrain, there was only evidence of a recent forest fire and a couple of distant peaks that none of the Utah officers recognized. On a hunch, a copy of the Lewis elk tape was mailed to Yellowstone National Park headquarters where viewers had no problem pinpointing the elk hunting area located some eight miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs.
Calling Lewis and Sims “brazen to the point of arrogance,” USFWS senior agent Joel Scrafford acknowledged that the two men obviously had been camping and hunting elk well within the boundaries of America’s oldest national park. Video evidence showed the pair had hit, killed or shot at 13 Yellowstone Park bulls. Incredibly, the two poachers were collecting footage for a how-to elk hunting videotape to be marketed and sold to hunters.
IN HIS EXCELLENT BOWHUNTER FEATURE ARTICLE, “Blind Ambition: The Don Lewis Story,” Mike Lapinski shared several post-arrest conversations that he’d had with the Alabama poacher and his one-time friend.
“… the Utah people have this all blown out of proportion. I don’t know where they came up with some of the stuff I was supposed to have done,” Lewis said.
“After this latest episode I’ve had it with sport hunting. The way I feel right now I doubt if I’ll ever hunt again. The sport’s getting too competitive. Everybody’s trying to outdo the other guy …
“I haven’t enjoyed hunting for the past 10 years since I started doing it for videos and sponsorship. I was killing animals just to make some sponsor happy, but I felt worse with each kill. I say leave the animals alone.”
Mike listened while Lewis had his say; however he concluded his article with these personal conclusions:
“No one talked Don Lewis into breaking the law. That was all Don Lewis’ doing. However, there well may be some truth to Lewis’ claim that sponsored celebrities are under pressure to produce more and larger trophies to tout the validity of a particular product, as some archery ads readily attest …
“A few years back I remember listening with increasing irritation as Don Lewis told me he was going to become a household name by taking a grand slam, plus a super slam, on video. I remember thinking, ‘These precious wild animals are being reduced to something akin to a bowling trophy.’”
For his Utah crimes, Lewis was convicted of 14 deer poaching-related charges and spent about 60 days behind bars. For their Yellowstone misadventures, Lewis and Sims accepted a plea bargain with each man pleading guilty to three misdemeanor poaching counts. They received fines totaling $15,000 and 18-month prison sentences. Each was placed on probation and banned from hunting and entering any national park for five years. Jail time for the two poachers was suspended, except for the 30 days Lewis served concurrently during his Utah incarceration.
Here’s videotape proof of criminal activity inside Yellowstone Park. This semi-tame bull elk
was called in and shot three separate times. Lewis took obvious pride in the accomplishment,
grinning and giving a thumbs-up signal to the camera after the elk finally died.
WHEN “DAY ONE” PRODUCER KEVIN COSGROVE called back later to invite me to appear in the nationally televised news segment and serve as the spokesman for the continent’s bowhunters, I finally agreed. A taping session in Gardiner, Montana, only a short drive from where Lewis and Sims had poached the Yellowstone bulls, left me hopeful that the Cosgrove promise for broadcast fairness would be fulfilled. Still, my nagging concern over fairness would not go away.
I needn’t have worried. When the “Poachers’ Paradise” segment was broadcast in mid-June of 1994, its theme was the fact that poaching is increasing in all national parks. Chief Ranger Don Scholly explained that only 55 rangers patrol Yellowstone’s 3,000 square miles of remote and rugged terrain. Catching poachers is not a simple matter, really. To underscore this problem, the program kicked off with the story of “Charger,” an aggressive bull elk and park favorite that had been shot and killed in a meadow beside a busy roadway. The big bull’s antlers had been sawed off; the carcass left to rot.
When the Don Lewis footage finally began to roll, segment host John McKenzie intoned, “If ever there was a case which highlights the flagrant violation of America’s parks, it was what this man – an Alabama bow and arrow hunter named Don Lewis did inside Yellowstone … Lewis used the sanctuary of the park like a Hollywood backlot to produce a how-to-hunt video which he planned to sell … Most of America’s 16 million licensed hunters earn their trophies hunting in season, outside national parks.”
True enough. As was Joel Scrafford’s observation that Lewis “… had the audacity to come in and hunt virtually tame elk with no fear of people.”
When my turn in front of the camera came, I labeled Lewis a serial killer of wildlife and drew the clear distinction between being a hunter and poacher. “It’s not hunting, John,” I explained. “He called them in to point-blank range and shot them. It would be like you going to a zoo in New York City and shooting an animal just to kill it.”
By the show’s end, I was relieved and satisfied. And judging from the calls and letters that I received in following days, many others felt exactly the same way.
“I saw you on the ‘Day One’ TV show and you hit the nail on the head with your description of Don Lewis. This man is nothing more than a common criminal … I wanted to write you a personal ‘thank you’ for letting America know how true sportsmen and bowhunters feel about poaching.” MOK, New York
“Hearing about the ‘Day One’ segment on Don Lewis, I was prepared for another network ‘roasting’ of hunters. Much to my surprise, ‘Day One’ was fair in their approach of the subject. Watching you give the true sportsman’s perspective on this story made me proud to be a bowhunter. Your analogy about this guy looked upon by hunters like clowns viewed John Wayne Gacy was outstanding.” RLP, California
“I don’t know if I am more outraged by the inexcusable acts committed by Don Lewis or the slap on the wrist that he received. Don Lewis not only stole but wasted a resource that belonged to all of us. He disgraced not only himself but ethical bowhunters everywhere. Anyone who would shoot park wildlife that has lost its instinctual fear of man deserves no sympathy. It’s high time the legal system started holding criminals accountable for their actions. If I had been the judge, he’d be under the jailhouse.” RB, North Carolina
“I am a Kansas parole officer and have been closely involved in some sentencing decisions. Still, the leniency of the sentences in the Lewis and Sims case bother me. Both men should never be allowed to hunt again and both should serve prison time as well as pay fines. We must show poachers that we as sportsmen will not tolerate their blatant rejection of the spirit of fair chase.” EF, Kansas