During a recent patrol around Missoula County, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Game Warden Aaron Berg pulls into the lot at Kelly Island west of town. The agency's TIP-MONT hotline reached him by cell phone a few minutes earlier, reporting someone spotted a group of waterfowl hunters trespassing on private property near McClay Bridge. The hunters meandered downstream, the tipster said, so Berg figures they parked their rigs at a public access point nearby.
He jokingly sums up the sight at the boat ramp as "classy." A yellow Dodge four-door pickup sits with one back door wide open. Lashed to the hitch is a pair of deer testicles—clearly a sign of the owner's prowess this past hunting season. A few magpies flit around the rear of the truck, snacking on the vulgar display.
Berg doesn't see the owner, but he's fairly certain he knows who it is. He won't name names, and only comments that FWP law enforcement has run into this individual before.
"I hope it's not him," says Berg. "He's already been in trouble."
A call to dispatch with the truck's plate number confirms his suspicions about the owner. However, Berg says there's nothing to suggest the pickup's owner is a suspect in the TIP-MONT call. The warden decides to move on to the tipster's house to collect whatever account of the incident he can.
"It's bad enough to drive around town with a deer rack sticking out of the bed of the truck, you know?" Berg says, still going on about the testicles as he cruises down Spurgin Road. "People that aren't really familiar with hunting or educated about it, that's their first image of it—these egos. Somebody who's not really into it or moved here from somewhere else sees that and they're just like, 'Idiot.' That's what they're thinking, and they're asking, 'Are all these people like this?'"
The moment speaks to a steady erosion of the Montana hunting ethic as Berg and many of the state's roughly 550,000 licensed hunters have known it throughout their lives. A select minority place ego—and, in more extreme cases, money—above the traditional beliefs of subsistence and connection to nature, Berg says. And the buck doesn't stop with antlers and testicles.
Ten years ago, FWP uncovered only a handful of cases involving poaching and illegal commercial outfitting in Montana annually. Now those activities dominate much of what the agency's law enforcement division does on a daily basis, with game wardens investigating nearly 40 such cases a year. Convictions for felony violations alone have generated more than $38,000 in fines and $179,000 in restitution payments to FWP since 2004, and have resulted in the cumulative loss of 174 years of hunting, trapping and fishing privileges for convicted felons.
"It's gotten to the point where, beginning in 2002, there's a part-time special prosecutor assigned to Fish, Wildlife and Parks cases with the attorney general's office," says FWP Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Mike Korn. "That should be some indication of the degree of it."
Like the majority of Montana hunters, Berg grew up with a simple, more traditional view of the sport, what he calls a "time to spend with your dad and your brothers and your grandpa." But his job at FWP requires Berg to regularly face the uglier side of hunting. Since becoming a game warden in 2003, he's used a combination of modern forensic science and what he calls "good, old-fashioned police work" to build so many cases that he's lost count of the total.
The evidence is hard to look at—scores of antlers, piles of hides, photo after photo of big game shot in the name of bragging rights and discarded in the field without remorse. Because of the very nature of poaching, FWP biologists have no way of determining how many animals are taken from localized populations each year. The extent of the devastation to the resource remains a troubling mystery for those charged with monitoring big game numbers.
"Social poaching groups have gotten so big and people's egos have gotten so big about illegally taking animals, they allow themselves to do serious damage to the resource," Berg says. "They're taking trophy game out of the gene pool."
In December 2007, the Missoula district court stripped Philip Mark Payton of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for the rest of his life. He was required to pay $52,744 in fines, restitution and court costs two years after FWP law enforcement stormed his Seeley Lake home, confiscating evidence that would eventually prove Payton had illegally killed 86 deer, antelope, elk, moose, black bear and mountain goats since 1990. A five-year statute of limitations meant Payton could only be charged for the killing of 30 of the animals.
Berg still remembers executing the 2005 search warrant, back in his early days with the division.
"Just to go through his house, it took 10 or 12 hours," Berg says. "There were more than a dozen of us there, and we took everything. Most of it was illegal."
The case Berg helped build against Payton proved Payton had broken nearly every regulation in the state's hunting laws. Berg says Payton had given duplicate tags to family and friends, hunted big game at night and out of season, and even went so far as to hire himself out as an outfitter without licensing or insurance.
While Payton earned the distinction of being one of the largest cases of illegal hunting in Montana in decades, he stands as just one example of the characters FWP has come to know all too well in recent years.
"We're seeing it more and more, we're uncovering it more and more," Korn says. "But we still believe we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg. Whether it's the commercialization end or just individuals who are hell bent on getting the biggest Boone and Crockett [Club] bull they possibly can...we're all disturbed about it. Not only does it take away from people who really commit themselves to hunting and are, due to their legitimate efforts, able to take a prize like that, it's outright theft. People are stealing from the state, from the people of this state."
The severity of hunting violations varies greatly in FWP's books. Some offenses seem minor, like a father shooting two deer and placing his son's tag on one. Others require poachers to go out of their way to break state laws. Wardens often get calls about hunters casting lights across fields at night—an act known as spotlighting. Poachers also typically hunt before or after the general season, which lasts from late October through November, and might exceed harvest limits or down game that require specialized permits.
Financial profit lifts the problem to even more damaging heights. Outfitting pours some $187 million into the state's economy each year, and there are those who seek to cash in on the trade without proper licensing, land access permits or insurance. Their impact on the resource is extreme, and the penalties they face when law enforcement catches up with them are equally harsh.
According to FWP, John McDonald ran an illegal commercial poaching ring near Gardiner for more than 10 years. For his role in killing 44 animals, McDonald was sentenced to one year in federal prison, paid $50,000 in fines and restitution, and lost his hunting, fishing and trapping rights for life. Due to Montana's participation in an interstate wildlife violator compact, McDonald lost the same rights in 19 other states.
"The licensed outfitting community has an enormous amount of regulation that they are managed under," says Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA). "And the consequences of violation are so large—loss of your livelihood, loss of your license—the reputable outfitter just isn't going to mess around with that."