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Poaching in Montana
Photo of a poaching case. Results of a major poaching case, the Ruth case, in western Montana.

Poaching is the illegal killing of fish or wildlife. It can include illegal killing for commercial trade or ego gratification. In closed areas or during closed hunting seasons, it can mean taking more than the law allows.

Poachers are criminals who kill for the thrill of killing, to lash out at wildlife laws, and, increasingly, for profit. Poachers are not down-on-their-luck people trying to feed their families. They are from all walks of life and avocations, and include residents and nonresidents. They kill wildlife any way, time, and place they can. Poaching rings can be well organized and extremely profitable. Some poachers operate alone, while others operate as part of organized crime. All poachers kill and waste fish and wildlife with no regard for the rights of others.

Organized Poaching

Montana is known for its wide open spaces, low population, and abundant fish and wildlife. While "opportunistic" violations remain a concern among game wardens, the larger and growing threat to wildlife is organized, pre-planned illegal activity. The increase in organized poaching is fueled by:

  • extensive national and international markets fed by commercial poachers and the illegal trade in trophy antlers and mounts;
  • opportunities to collect thousands of dollars in the course of these crimes;
  • ease of networking and communicating with others seeking to illegally kill trophy-sized animals for a given amount of money;
  • the ability to act on one's obsession to illegally kill the biggest and best trophy-sized animals.

In many cases money is not a motive, and the game carcass is often wasted by poachers who decapitate the animal for its head and antlers.

Poaching is a serious problem in Montana

Investigations of organized and professional poaching grew from about 20 in the 1990s to about 40 new cases a year today. In addition, poachers affect all Montanans by:

  • reducing recreational opportunities for law abiding anglers, hunters, wildlife watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts;
  • killing and wasting Montana game animals, threatened and endangered species, and even nongame animals;
  • targeting Montana's fish and wildlife resources for personal profit.

Poaching impacts Montana citizens

Poaching robs law-abiding hunters of game and fish, businesses and taxpayers of revenues generated by hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing recreational pursuits, and it denies many other Montanans the ability to enjoy seeing healthy, mature fish and wildlife populations.

How many animals do poachers kill in Montana?

Montana Wardens write on average 4,500 citations yearly. Hundreds of hunting and angling violations occur annually, but less than half constitute what could be considered "poaching." Most violations are procedural ones, such as failure to leave evidence of sex and species naturally attached to an animal, or failing to attach the appropriate tag to a carcass.

In spite of this, however, poaching—that is, the willful and intentional taking of wildlife illegally—is on the rise. This could be due to many factors, not the least of which is the abundance of animals, combined with the fact that Montana has become a hunter's destination, with world-renown hunting and angling opportunities.

Once someone is convicted of a violation, a record is made in a violation database. However, it can take weeks or even months for the violation to become entered into the Law Enforcement database, depending on the jurisdiction and whether someone is paying fines and/or restitution over time. Therefore, the figures shown for the most recent years in the following table represent only a portion of the total citations written, or convictions for various wildlife violations.

Big Game Poaching—Calendar Years 2000-2009 1
Big Game Animal 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 TOTAL
Antelope 27 42 39 37 48 45 39 46 38 25 386
Black Bear 18 7 14 9 13 9 9 6 10 3 98
Deer—Mule 129 133 158 137 165 167 162 151 126 51 1,379
Deer—Whitetail 68 65 78 98 80 83 99 99 90 26 786
Elk 132 98 118 123 140 134 141 160 135 43 1,224
Moose 2 4 10 10 9 3 9 7 5 1 60
Sheep 1 1 0 3 4 4 3 5 3 2 26
TOTAL 377 350 417 417 459 445 462 474 372 151 3,959
TOTAL—All "Hunting" Violations for the Same Time Period 935 935 1,018 1,044 1,001 978 1,039 1,040 919 404 9,313
1for citations entered in the violation database through June 2010