Making a killing
How profit-driven poachers are plundering Montana's wildlife, and what enforcement officials are doing to shut them down.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
It was a just a company perk. But unlike the ones most people might receive—say, a Christmas ham or ballgame tickets—this annual bonus was illegal. Provided to employees each fall, under Montana's big sky, the perk came from the CEO of a company in Illinois. During the summer, the employees would apply for their nonresident Montana hunting license. But if they forgot, or didn't get drawn, it didn't matter. The contact in Montana was paid well to take care of that. Once in the Treasure State, each employee could kill a trophy antelope, or two, or even three. The animals were then mounted by a taxidermist (one they knew could keep his mouth shut) who shipped the mounts back to Illinois so the employees could show off their "hunting" prowess. And the game wardens? Heck, they didn't suspect a thing. Illegal hunting— by nonresidents and residents—has been gaining momentum these days in Montana, a state so wealthy in wildlife resources that poachers (those who kill game animals illegally) get plenty of opportunities to shoot big trophies, make big money, and satisfy big egos.
For hunters and others who prize wildlife, Montana's growing poaching problem means fewer large-racked animals to hunt or view. For state and federal enforcement officials, it means knowing that each year more people get away with a crime that's robbing law-abiding citizens of a highly valued public resource.
Decades ago, when states first set hunting regulations, most poachers were poor, rural people trying to put food on the table. It was illegal, sure, but a deer or two potted out of season kept many a Montana family alive through the winter. That portrait, however, has changed.
"Poachers don't just go out and [illegally] shoot a deer for subsistence anymore," says Jim Kropp, chief of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Enforcement Division. "Much poaching today is about trophies."
Which, due to the high price trophies command, means it's often about money. "You have Montanans out of work, or maybe making only $15,000 a year, and they see hunters from out of state wheel in with big money," explains Jeff Darrah, FWP warden captain at Missoula. "They see an opportunity to supplement their income by getting those hunters a bull elk or some other trophy. You can go to just about any community in Montana and find somebody who will do that."
For example, last year in Glacier National Park, one poacher killed three bighorn sheep, and then pocketed $600 to $900 from trophy horn collectors for each head before special agents finally caught up with him.
More often, however, the money is made by criminals who provide opportunities and know-how for others to do the poaching—especially well-off out-of-staters. Operating out of Tom Miner Basin in southwestern Montana a few years ago, one poacher charged clients $3,000 to hunt a mountain lion, $1,200 for an antelope hunt, $600 to hunt a bobcat. "The list was endless," says assistant U.S. attorney Kris McLean, who prosecutes federal poaching cases from his Missoula office. "If you had the money, he would take you out. It didn't matter if you had a license or not."
Who are these criminals lawlessly killing the public's game for private profit? "There is no poacher profile," says Doug Goessman, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). "Poachers include folks in their early 20s ranging up into their 60s. And poaching crosses all social strata."
Many poachers in Montana run illegal operations out of this state and others. One, from Georgia, charged each of his clients from Georgia and South Carolina between $5,000 and $7,000 to shoot an antelope and a deer in Montana without a license. Last year, a Michigan poacher booked hunts from his home state and brought clients to Montana to kill mountain lions for $2,000 to $3,000 per cat. Again, "no license necessary."
And the poaching problem grows worse. Montana FWP has made more high-profile poaching arrests over the past 10 years than in any previous decade. State fish and game law violations of all types increased by 50 percent from 1980 to 2001. Goessman notes that it's hard for his office to document an increase in poaching activity, because some federal cases involve just a few individuals and others involve many.
"But I can tell you that we're definitely seeing more and more cases involving people paying for trophy animals," he says.
Illegal killing is also done by ordinary hunters succumbing to temptation. "That's the kind of day-to-day poaching that we run into," says FWP warden sergeant Mike Moore at Miles City. "Somebody sees an animal that excites him, he looks over both shoulders, and then he shoots it."
Called "opportunistic poaching," this illegal activity by our neighbors can occur at levels that surprise even hardened officials. Darrah tells of an extreme example when he and several other wardens set up antlered mule deer decoys in an area where they'd received complaints of poachers illegally shining spotlights on deer at night. "We had 10 vehicles come along, and every vehicle stopped and illegally shot at those decoys," says Darrah. "If those had been real bucks, there would have been 10 deer poached that night."
Though poachers rip off the public, many people still respond to the problem with a big "So what?" Montana has plenty of deer, not to mention elk and other wildlife, they say. What's the big deal if a few are nabbed under cover of darkness?
Wardens and other enforcement officials know how big a deal it is. When poachers kill 30 moose and leave them on the ground to rot, as documented in a single season in southwestern Montana, they understand that 30 moose are no longer available to wildlife watchers and law-abiding hunters.
"The opportunities to see the numbers of animals we've enjoyed in Montana are being reduced by these guys who think they can kill whatever they want," says McLean.
There's more. Poachers pluck prime animals from a herd, thus eliminating not only those specimens but also their trophy gene pool. "Poachers are targeting the biggest and the best animals we have," says Kropp.
And then there's the cost of investigating major poaching operations—a cost borne by lawful hunters from their license fees. A single recent case, which resulted in the conviction of 32 people on poaching charges, required 1,000 hours of work—the equivalent of one warden's time and salary for half a year.
Darrah maintains that the greatest damage from poaching, however, is how it degrades Montana's hunting heritage. "When we catch somebody who shoots four moose or seven elk, and that makes the newspapers," he says, "people who don't hunt or don't approve of hunting say, "Look, that's what hunters do.'" The result, Darrah contends, is more private land closed to public hunting and more of the non-hunting public soured on hunters and hunting.
If money is the motivation for most poaching, what drives the money, according to McLean, are the inflated egos of status seekers accustomed to quick gratification, no matter what the price.
"You often get highly successful people who are type A personalities and are just used to getting what they want," says the federal prosecutor. "They feel they can do anything."
The incentive to poach can also be a cultural tradition, in which Dad shows the kids how to lay a rifle across the hood and shoot a deer at meadow's edge, illuminated by the headlights. "Hunter education is almost too late for some 12-year-olds," says Kropp. "They've already been taught by their parents to take the opportunity to poach."
Jim Posewitz, hunter ethicist and founder of Orion: The Hunters Institute, believes that increased poaching may be one manifestation of a recent trend toward commercial hunting, in which landowners lease large tracts of land to hunting clubs, outfitters, and wealthy hunters. Leasing, he maintains, makes it harder for poorer individuals to pursue legal hunting opportunities and makes illegal hunting more acceptable.
"If you look at the history of England, where people have treated wildlife as property attached to land, poaching was the number one crime for centuries," says Posewitz. "That may be an emerging issue in Montana, where people who lease land and lock it up are becoming the equivalent of the King's gamekeepers. As hunting opportunities become more difficult fo the public to come by, I think the idea of poaching the 'King's deer' picks up a certain level of social acceptability."
Of course, some poaching is accidental, done by hunters who are either unable or unwilling to read or remember Montana's game laws. "But for the most part," says Moore, "these guys know what they're doing."
Whether someone poaches for profit, for personal aggrandizement, or simply out of ignorance, the penalties have grown increasingly stiff—particularly in Montana. Those found guilty of illegally shooting any deer lose their hunting privileges for three years and must pay the state a minimum of $500. For poaching trophy animals, Montana hits lawbreakers hard. A poacher recently convicted for killing a trophy bighorn sheep in the Elkhorn Mountains had to pay $30,000 in restitution to the state.
If a dead animal—trophy or otherwise— is transported across state lines, the sentence can be downright draconian. Giving or selling a license to somebody who kills an animal and then transports it out of Montana—a common violation—is considered a felony under the federal Lacey Act. Enacted in 1900 to prevent the widespread practice of killing and transporting game across the United States, the law currently imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"Time and time again we hear from people indicted for violating the Lacey Act: "Jeez, I didn't realize we were going to get in this much trouble,'" says Goessman. "Well, we're not back in the old days anymore, where you get caught by a warden and pay a couple of hundred dollars. Today, the stakes for poaching are very, very high."
For well-heeled poachers, however, even the larger state fines are merely pocket change and do little to deter illegal behavior. The Illinois CEO mentioned earlier was fined $15,000 for killing an overlimit and hunting without a license. But he makes $8 million to $12 million per year, according to Kropp. "
A $15,000 fine would set the average Montanan back a bit," says Kropp. "But to this guy, that's just a drop in the bucket, the cost of doing business."
If wealthy poachers don't mind writing a big check to the state, they do seem to notice when a conviction removes hunting privileges. For years, poachers convicted in one state could still buy a license and hunt in another, but no longer. Now, anyone caught hunting illegally in Montana will run up against the Interstate Wildlife Violators Compact, an agreement that calls for revoking hunting privileges in all of the 17 member states if a license is revoked in any one of the others. Moreover, a poacher convicted of a felony may lose the right to ever again carry a firearm.
Jail sentences also get poachers' attention. The outfitter who guided illegal hunts for the CEO and his employees ended up in jail for six months. For his role in the crime, the taxidermist spent six months under house arrest. "That gives them time to think about things," Kropp says.
Lawful hunters retaliate
Also helping the effort to send poachers packing are legal hunters, who have teamed up with wardens and other officials. The Montana Bowhunters Association, for example, helped persuade the Montana legislature to impose stiffer penalties for poaching. Reward money donated by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep has helped apprehend bighorn sheep poachers. And the Montana Board of Outfitters has assisted FWP in apprehending unlicensed outfitters. In addition, regular hunters and nonhunters increasingly report poaching activities.
"Most of our larger investigations start with a single tip," says Moore. "It may be fairly general, not something we can take action on right away, but we'll start looking at outfitters records, taxidermists records, meat locker records, and license databases to see if something's suspicious. We get our Criminal Investigation Section (CIS) involved when we believe the only way we'll get anywhere is to send special investigators in."
The agency's undercover unit, the CIS has an impressive record of catching poachers that elude local wardens. Kevin Clader, unit leader, says his wardens keep a low profile, preferring to remain anonymous as they blend into the seedier side of Montana's outdoors.
Undercover work is an age-old method of nabbing wrongdoers. But state and federal enforcement officials also employ technological advances in communications, computers, and forensics. Last year, for example, a man was apprehended after illegally collecting shed elk antlers on the Sun River Game Range before it opened to the public. Wardens had planted electronically marked antlers and gathered intelligence on suspicious vehicles parked near the game range.
"We discovered that one suspect lived in Corvallis, Montana," says Kropp. "So we jumped into a plane, flew over his house, and picked up signals being transmitted from the poached antlers. Then we obtained a search warrant."
Another case was something out of a TV crime show. A warden took blood samples from the site where a mountain lion had been illegally killed. A year later, when he entered a taxidermist's shop, the warden was stunned to see a photo of someone posing with a dead lion at the exact spot he'd taken the sample. The poacher was eventually apprehended when state forensics experts matched DNA from the blood sample with DNA of the mounted lion the man had in his house.
Such careful attention to detail has paid off recently by shutting down major poaching operations. One of the biggest, an undercover investigation in eastern Montana dubbed Operation Rosebud (for the county where it was held) recently resulted in the prosecution of 32 defendants (9 residents and 23 nonresidents), the seizure of 51 illegally killed animals, and the imposition of over $155,000 in fines, 15 years of federal probations, and 45 years of revoked hunting privileges. It was the biggest poaching bust in Montana history.
Many versus few
There are, however, big obstacles to fighting poachers in Montana. With only 70 field game wardens in the state, each one is responsible for roughly 2,000 square miles, an area the size of some small states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is even more undermanned, with just three field agents for all of Montana.
"There are so many poachers and so few of us, that the possibility of getting caught is very remote," concedes Rick Branzell, USFWS special agent.
State wardens are also hamstrung, says McLean, by a recent court decision prohibiting them from going onto private property to look for violations without reasonable suspicion.
Moreover, poachers are growing increasingly sophisticated, employing two-way radios, computers, GPS units, and other technology to stay a step ahead of the law. Some even use the Internet to sell their ill-gotten gains. "In 2000 I worked a case where we caught three guys from Miles City who'd poached three big muley bucks," says Moore. "They told us they were planning to sell them on Ebay."
Officials note that it's difficult to document exactly how much the poaching problem in Montana has increased. But they do know that money always attracts illegality. And as the money attached to wildlife has increased, as it has in recent years, officials know that poaching activity has too. What's more, adds McLean, "the poachers out there are killing more per man. It's not just poach one deer and take it home. It's poach ten."
That doesn't bode well for Montana's wildlife—not to mention law-abiding hunters and wildlife watchers and those entrusted with managing and protecting wild animals. The demand for trophy wildlife continues to grow. And the prices paid to bag one—legally or not—are also rising. Unfortunately, the money and manpower available to enforce Montana's game laws and maintain healthy wildlife populations haven't kept pace. "Given the current level of our resources," says Kropp, "we are not keeping up anymore."
Sam Curtis is a freelance writer from Bozeman
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