The Price of Poaching 

For most, hunting season ended in November. But a troubling number of illegal hunters are stretching Montana game wardens to the brink

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.

click to enlarge Warden Aaron Berg checks a deer head inside the locker at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Missoula office. The room contains shelves of evidence in ongoing poaching and illegal outfitting operations, but Berg says not all of the body parts here are the result of criminal activity. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Warden Aaron Berg checks a deer head inside the locker at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Missoula office. The room contains shelves of evidence in ongoing poaching and illegal outfitting operations, but Berg says not all of the body parts here are the result of criminal activity.

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.

click to enlarge Aaron Berg, a game warden with FWP, inspects a juvenile bald eagle carcass on the banks of the Bitterroot River. There’s little left of the bird, but Berg suspects it was shot illegally. With no leads and no additional evidence, there’s nothing the warden can do to create a case. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Aaron Berg, a game warden with FWP, inspects a juvenile bald eagle carcass on the banks of the Bitterroot River. There’s little left of the bird, but Berg suspects it was shot illegally. With no leads and no additional evidence, there’s nothing the warden can do to create a case.

"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."

MOGA sees these illegal operations, dubbed "rogues" by the legitimate outfitting community, as a threat to more than just wildlife conservation. Minard says that with legitimate outfitting contributing so much to state tourism, there's a trickle down effect that hits everyone. It'd be nice if the problem was exclusive to the industry, he says, but illegal operations "reflect badly on the entire state." Those at FWP agree, and decry the financial motives behind it.

"The real commercialized end of it, the felonious end of it, it's people who are willing to pay a lot of money for really quick gratification and people who are willing to basically sell Montana's soul—the resources we have here—for money," Korn says. "It comes down to cold hard cash, and it's too bad."

•••

Money plays into another immediate problem for FWP law enforcement: As poaching and illegal commercial outfitting rise in Montana, so to does the agency's trouble in hiring and retaining staff.

FWP employs only 71 game wardens statewide. An additional 27 sergeants, captains and special investigators work throughout the agency's seven administrative regions, but field patrols and initial investigations fall primarily on the shoulders of wardens. According to Korn, each is responsible for covering square mileage roughly the size of the state of Delaware.

"There are so few of us and we're spread so thin across the state," Berg says, "it's hard to be everywhere at once."

Staff limitations at the division are due partly to low pay. Korn puts the starting wage for wardens at $17.63 an hour—about $5 an hour less than what most county deputies in Montana make, he says. FWP funds its law enforcement branch through money from hunting and fishing license sales, as well as supplemental dollars from excise taxes on firearm and fishing gear sales. FWP reports revenue has dropped almost $2 million since 2003 while expenses have risen by more than $6 million. Possible budget cuts now on the table for FWP include leaving vacant enforcement positions open. And with wardens struggling to support families—Berg says his wife also has to work to keep them afloat—vacancies are becoming a growing concern.

"It's very frustrating, because it costs money to train guys," Korn says. "But they find that, yeah, they'd love to stay here, but they can make way more as a campus cop. They have a family to feed."

FWP law enforcement isn't the only one to recognize a lack of financial stability on its part. Their presence in the field has a direct impact on the average hunter, limiting the reach of illegal activities and preserving wild game for the conservation-conscious majority.

"There's always going to be poachers operating in Montana," says Land Tawney, co-founder of the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (HHA). "But the more resources we can get...the better handle we can get on the situation. One of the biggest ones we need to address that we haven't yet is the pay of our wardens."

click to enlarge FWP law enforcement collects and stores dozens of pieces of evidence from past and ongoing investigations into poaching activity. Mixed in with that evidence are dead animals gathered by FWP biologists in the interests of monitoring the health and vitality of local wildlife populations. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • FWP law enforcement collects and stores dozens of pieces of evidence from past and ongoing investigations into poaching activity. Mixed in with that evidence are dead animals gathered by FWP biologists in the interests of monitoring the health and vitality of local wildlife populations.

On the ground, Berg can't stress enough how big a problem funding is for FWP law enforcement. Meager salaries hardly compensate wardens for the long hours they work simultaneously patrolling for daily compliance and putting together complex cases. If FWP is already having trouble holding on to the wardens it has, Berg says, what chance does it have of conducting more hires to lighten the incredible load on those now employed?

"It's just not uncommon to get home, sit down to eat dinner, just get your uniform off and the phone rings," Berg says. "You end up working 16-, 17-, 18-hour days sometimes."

FWP's need for better financial support hasn't escaped those with a voice in state politics. In 2007, a number of agencies and organizations across the state—among them MOGA and HHA—backed a set of four bills deemed the "Poacher's Package." Those bills aimed at increasing the weight of the book Montana courts throw at wildland offenders and the amount of money available for law enforcement's efforts.

Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, spearheaded the legislative effort and helped get all four bills passed.

"That's been the favorite piece of legislation I've worked on," says Jent, who served in the state's House of Representatives for three years and faces his third session with the state Senate in 2011. "I've been interested in this for a long time, since I was a kid...I realized the best ways I could protect the wildlife resource in Montana was to act on bills that would be supported by sportsmen and law enforcement."

Jent, who once considered a career as an FWP game warden before entering law school, is particularly proud of the increased penalties the Poacher's Package put in place for large-scale criminal activity toward wildlife. Senate Bill 100 raised the charge from outfitting without a license from a misdemeanor to a felony, ensuring that criminals would face jail time as opposed to a slap on the wrist.

"A lot of times I'll see a poaching case and I'll see the penalties they got," Tawney says of HHA's motivation for supporting the Poacher's Package. "I always think it's not big enough. They're getting away with murder, they really are."

click to enlarge Berg responds to a TIP-MONT call from Missoula area resident Mike Kennedy, who called the state hotline when he noticed waterfowl hunters trespassing on his Bitterroot River property. Incidents like this have a detrimental impact on hunter-landowner relations. “It gets worse with every year,” Kennedy says of illegal hunting. “People have less and less respect.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Berg responds to a TIP-MONT call from Missoula area resident Mike Kennedy, who called the state hotline when he noticed waterfowl hunters trespassing on his Bitterroot River property. Incidents like this have a detrimental impact on hunter-landowner relations. “It gets worse with every year,” Kennedy says of illegal hunting. “People have less and less respect.”

Jent's efforts also rewrote state law to place the first $60,000 of restitution payments for wildlife crimes right into FWP law enforcement's pocket, a victory of which he's particularly proud. With the division as strapped as it is, Jent says someone has to find ways to keep enforcement strong.

"The trouble with game wardens right now is they're being captured by other states and agencies with high salaries," he says. "We need to figure out what wardens should be paid."

Jent had hoped to introduce a bill in the 2009 session aimed at raising existing wardens' salaries for the purposes of personnel retention. However, in light of the state's economic troubles, Jent put the draft on hold. He fully intends to introduce the legislation in 2011, and he's not alone in recognizing the need.

"These are not easy cases to make," Minard says. "They require an awful lot of resources and time...Even with [the Poacher's Package] in place, which is substantially better than what they had before, they're still understaffed, and they're still under-gunned, and these are very difficult cases to make."

Jent says he's "cautiously optimistic" about future attempts to boost funding for FWP. Still, as a lifelong hunter in the Bozeman area, he realizes the issue won't hit the session floor without some controversy.

"You get more questions and more debate with fish and game legislation," Jent says, "because everybody who's had a hunting tag since age 12 thinks he's an expert."

•••

FWP doesn't make front-page busts on a daily basis. Far more often, law enforcement finds itself dealing with individuals wreaking havoc on wild game with no thought of money. Berg's dealt with enough casual poachers to know just what he's looking for.

"You can pick these guys easily out of a crowd," Berg says. "They're the types that bring their deer head to work. I'm not generalizing, but it's largely ego. They want the biggest and they think they're the best."

Berg has seen more than his share of wasted game during patrols. After killing an animal, poachers often take the head for the antlers and leave the meat to rot. Berg has no patience for these incidents. They're symptomatic of the same blatant disrespect that breeds commercial poaching operations.

"It usually involves one or two animals instead of 80 to 100, like in that case," Berg says, referencing the Philip Mark Payton case that involved 86 illegal kills. "But if they're doing that this time, how many years in a row have they been doing it?"

With limited staff resources to devote to regular enforcement, wardens like Berg rely on a long and varied list of tactics in nabbing poachers. For starters, Berg says, people would be surprised how helpful Internet social networking sites have been in uncovering illicit activities. FWP regularly scouts Facebook, hunting forums and market sites like eBay for possible leads. They've relied on remote cameras, animal decoys positioned in places off-limits for hunting and even the occasional undercover assignment to bust minor poachers and major illegal outfits. Mainly, though, Berg says good relationships with landowners and simply being a presence in the wild are a warden's strongest advantages.

Building a case calls for a similarly diverse set of tools, or "the CSI stuff," as Berg calls it. Search warrants and crime scenes offer any number of possibilities for incriminating evidence. Ballistics, fingerprints and animal hair fibers have proven useful, as well as DNA, both human and animal, to place suspects at a crime scene.

"We were able to pull some bullets from some of the animals, and during the search warrant we pulled DNA from all the animals we found," Berg says of one case from a few years back involving a group of young men slaughtering animals near Lincoln. "There was also a Gatorade bottle that had been littered by one of them and we took that. We had the DNA swab from all these suspects, and the crime lab here in Missoula matched DNA from the saliva or skin cells or whatever that ended up on the Gatorade bottle to one of the suspects. It was a one in, I don't remember, 250 million chance."

click to enlarge Berg has served as an FWP game warden in Missoula for six years. He says he got involved with the agency to protect a resource he’s valued his entire life. Catching poachers and busting illegal commercial outfitters now constitute the bulk of his time. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Berg has served as an FWP game warden in Missoula for six years. He says he got involved with the agency to protect a resource he’s valued his entire life. Catching poachers and busting illegal commercial outfitters now constitute the bulk of his time.

Thanks in part to that Gatorade bottle, the case Berg cites ended in sentencing and restitution fines, and the responsible parties answered for killing one moose, two elk and several deer well past hunting season.

Berg has come to rely more heavily on the TIP-MONT hotline over the past six years than nearly any other enforcement strategy. In 2009, Berg took more hotline calls than any other FWP warden in the state—a total of 105, just under half of which materialized in solid cases, he says. With so much ground to cover, the agency is forced to count on the general public to police itself. While some of the calls can be vague, Berg says, the calls get more detailed every year.

"It's becoming very well used, and the information we get has become a lot more reliable," says FWP TIP-MONT Coordinator Brian Shinn. "The average citizen has become more vigilant. We are seeing people carrying cell phones and getting license plate numbers, and the information they're giving is more exact. We're able to make convictions off it whereas in the past it was more people calling in general saying, 'Oh, somebody's shooting deer,' and then hanging up. It's turning out to be quite a good tool for enforcement."

According to FWP, TIP-MONT calls have not only increased in quality but in quantity. The last few years saw a dramatic spike in the total number of calls the program has received, from 1,300 in 2006 to 2,000 last year, Shinn says. And few tipsters seem interested in the cash rewards FWP offers.

"Last year we gave over $16,000 in reward money to people that turned in legitimate cases," Shinn says. "That's a very small percentage of people who were actually eligible."

Two TIP-MONT calls to FWP in late 2008 led wardens to an elk gut pile along Ninemile Road west of Missoula, and a further tip involving portions of an elk rotting in a backyard landed the agency a search warrant. According to the warrant, filed with the Missoula district court, DNA from the gut pile matched that of the carcass in Ryan Pollock's yard. One of the tips included information that the individual behind the killing conducted the hunt by spotlighting from the road. The case is one of several currently under investigation by FWP.

•••

Berg ends his patrol in the north hills, where a special post-season elk hunt has entered its second week. Hundreds of elk have congregated under a tree on private property, out of legal reach of hunters. Berg doesn't expect to catch any poachers, but the view of the Missoula Valley is spectacular.

click to enlarge Deer testicles tied to the hitch of a pickup shows one hunter’s success during the 2009 hunting season—and offer a prime example of the disrespect some hunters have for Montana’s wildlife. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Deer testicles tied to the hitch of a pickup shows one hunter’s success during the 2009 hunting season—and offer a prime example of the disrespect some hunters have for Montana’s wildlife.

The Kelly Island TIP-MONT call has led to a dead-end so far. He has plate numbers in case any suspects turn up, but with the limited evidence he has the incident is hardly a priority. Now he sits at the edge of a hillside development, watching the elk through his binoculars and discussing the impacts humans have on local wildlife.

"They're creatures, too," Berg says. "They were here before we were, in a sense. Look at that housing development over there. Years ago, before that existed, you'd see maybe three or four or five hundred head of elk standing there. Since all these developments in all these drainages have gone in, these elk have been separated into numerous herds. We're having an effect on these animals, and we have to try to minimize that by keeping people around to enforce the laws."

Despite the problems plaguing FWP law enforcement, Berg insists the division continues to have a positive impact. He spends part of his time teaching hunter safety courses and says education can go a long way in stopping poachers before they ever start. With the size of some egos and the amount of money to be made, Berg realizes illegal hunting activities will never fully disappear. But he has a personal warning for anyone looking to cash in on Montana's most prized asset.

"You're going to get caught eventually," Berg says. "There's always somebody watching."

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