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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"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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