As with so much other crime, money is often the motivation behind poaching. In the 1980s, most poachers were people shooting deer or elk for meat, or maybe someone taking advantage of an opportunity like seeing an elk in a field after the season had closed. But over the last 20 years, greed has driven a new breed of poachers to line their wallets with Montana's wildlife. And we're seeing record-book heads that can sell for $30,000 to $40,000 or even more.
With that kind of money at stake, a growing number of people are willing to do whatever it takes to put large racks in the hands of wealthy clients. What we're seeing is the intersection of big antlers with big egos. There's a growing interest across the county in having a big trophy on the wall—no matter how it's taken—and that's what's driving a lot of the poaching in Montana.
Though most poachers are individuals killing just one animal, we are seeing greater numbers of organized operations in which several people kill scores of animals. Here's a brief account of some recent Montana cases:
Early in 2006, a federal judge sentenced Danny McDonald, a commercial poacher from Gardiner, to a year in federal prison and $50,000 in fines and restitution for illegally leading out-of-state hunters to trophy bulls leaving Yellowstone National Park for the Cinnabar Basin. As of October 2008, 21 additional people have been fined and had their hunting privileges revoked, and another dozen out-of-state hunters are still under investigation. Game wardens and federal agents seized 20 elk heads and racks (mostly trophies), 2 deer heads, 1 mountain lion, and 1 black bear as part of the investigation. There are another 20-25 illegal elk heads that have been identified but not retrieved because they are out-of-state or out of the country. Fines and restitution totaled $110,000.
In late-2007, Montana FWP uncovered an illegal outfitting operation and arrested Dean Langton, owner of PanAngling/PanHunting, who listed a Montana address in court documents but who was not a Montana resident. There were 7 others involved—1 Floridian and 6 Georgians. The case involved illegal outfitting and possession of unlawfully-taken big game animals, all killed without licenses, including a 4x4 whitetail buck, a trophy 9x5 mule deer buck, a 6x5 mule deer buck, a 5x5 mule deer buck, 2 whitetail does; along with a trophy 7x7 bull elk, a whitetail doe and a 4x4 whitetail buck—all killed without valid licenses. Restitution totaled $19,100 for the unlawfully-taken big game animals. This investigation was led by an FWP regional investigator, 1 of 6 newly created positions to manage wide-ranging, complex, long-term cases involving wildlife and resource abuses.
Montana is world-renowned for abundant wildlife and progressive wildlife conservation. Efforts to protect these resources and thwart the growing poaching problem are on the rise.
Backed by the Montana Bowhunters Association, legislation was passed that raised fines and restitution amounts. Judges are revoking hunting privileges for years or even a lifetime—and not just in Montana but also in a nonresident poacher's home state. Judges are also putting serial poachers behind bars. Montana is one of the few states to send people to prison for poaching. Jail time is a real deterrent. Montana FWP is pushing to make poachers pay for court and investigative costs, too, similar to what's imposed on those convicted of other crimes. Montana legislation enacted in 2007 allows imposing felony penalties for some types of unlicensed and illegal outfitting, as well as channeling restitution money into FWP law enforcement programs.
FWP's Automated Licensing System (ALS) allows wardens to instantly check whether suspected poachers have purchased various licenses and permits. In Operation Cinnabar, for example, wardens found that none of the suspects had special hunting permits and several had no licenses at all. Hunting licenses are routinely crosschecked against drivers' licenses to ensure nonresidents aren't buying the less-expensive (and very desirable) resident hunting licenses.
In 2005, Montana legislation authorized the hiring of Regional Investigators. This increases our ability to investigate and prosecute large-scale, complex, wildlife crimes. In 2008, we have 6 regional investigators covering the state, and 3 undercover wardens working on poaching cases. In addition, there is a special prosecutor in the state Attorney General's office who spends half-time prosecuting wildlife felonies.
Since 2006, wardens have been traveling the state giving presentations on the poaching problem. A major anti-poaching public awareness campaign was launched in cooperation with the Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, and Montana Wildlife Federation. The campaign seeks to show Montanans that poachers are stealing some of the state's most valued big game, and robbing hunters and wildlife watchers of recreational opportunities.
In addition, anonymous calls to the TIP-MONT violation hotline (406) 847-6668 continue to be the lead source of information on poaching cases. Operation Cinnabar provides a classic example of how a simple phone call from a concerned citizen shut down a major-league poaching operation. A fellow was flying back to Montana when he overheard some passengers from Tennessee on the plane talking about their upcoming Montana bull elk hunt. The Montanan knew the season was closed and he overheard the others talk about 'ranch tags' that do not exist in Montana. Suspecting that it was some sort of illegal operation, the Montanan called TIP-MONT from the airport as soon as the plane landed.