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

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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.

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