CHEROKEE COUNTY, Oklahoma - Hunting season is in full swing and so is poaching; but deer aren't the only animals being killed illegally, game wardens are searching right now for several people who poached an elk in Cherokee County.

There are 30,000 acres of public hunting land in Cherokee County, and while most hunters follow the law, there are plenty of others who think they're above it.

“Most poachers are opportunists, so they saw the elk and went, 'There it is,' ya know, 'that'll do,'” Cherokee County Game Warden, Tony Clark said.

The mature bull elk was poached from a wildlife management area near Tahlequah a few days before Thanksgiving. The animal was grazing on a food plot close to a road when it was killed.

“They just pulled in there and shot it. And these elk here, they've been here for years, they're relatively, not tamed, but they're used to seeing human beings and they're not used to being shot,” said Clark.

He said the poachers were trophy hunting, taking heads and only some of the meat.

“They'll see the big buck and he just won't come or they just can't get him close, so they'll do something to get him. They want the big one,” he said, “and they're willing to take illegal measures to get it.”

That's not unusual, but what is unique in this case. Clark said a deer-hunter watched the whole thing happen but waited, out of fear, until the poachers left to report the crime.

“He was afraid they would shoot him or kill him if they knew somebody had witnessed them kill an elk,” Clark said. “The sheriff's office and some other game wardens tried to seal off the entrances to keep them in here, but they beat us."

The witness claimed the poachers were driving a “nice-looking” newer brown truck with several people helping.

“Don't know for sure, but multiple people, one guy could have never done it by himself,” Clark said.

In Cherokee County, there is one controlled elk hunt on public land each year, but Clark said with each elk that's poached, it takes away opportunities for hunters who abide by the law.

“We could probably spare two or three elk a year to a controlled hunt, it would be a hunt of a lifetime for somebody to hunt an Oklahoma elk and get one and the poachers get two or three a year, every year since I've been here.”

The bigger problem is with deer; dozens are poached in Cherokee County alone each year.

“There's a creek, I got a call, ‘there's four whole deer that somebody had threw over a bridge,' it's ridiculous,” he said.

To stay ahead of the crime, the Wildlife Department created a special Facebook page this fall for its law enforcement division.

“It's a huge deal because we're getting the hunters, and the non-hunters alike, are seeing what we actually do,” Clark said. “There was case early in the year with six deer with their heads cut off and it was put on the Facebook page and it got over 600,000 hits and two weeks later the crime was solved.”

Clark hopes posts about the poached elk, plus a $1,000 reward will close this case.

Poaching wildlife comes with stiff penalties. Illegally killing an elk, for instance, could lead to more than $3,000 in fines. A judge could also revoke the poachers hunting license, if they have one.

To report a poacher or any illegal wildlife activity, call the Operation Game Thief hotline 1-800-522-8039, the county sheriff's office or local game warden.

Clark said another bull elk was killed during a controlled youth deer hunt in early November. He said a father and son mistook the elk for a deer.

The area's biologist said that elk was the largest in Cherokee County.

The meat was donated to a needy family.