Poacher's Paradise 

Forbidden Bounty

Illegal hunting is taking its toll on Montana's wildlife.

Game wardens, sportsmen and undercover agents are fighting back.

It was the perfect plan gone bad. He figured that the flight from Los Angeles to Butte would only take three hours, the purchase would only take an hour, and the return flight would offer the perfect opportunity for a late afternoon nap. Once back in sunny California, he was sure to make a hefty profit.

But the unfortunate middleman never had a chance. Unbeknownst to him, he was purchasing seized bear gallbladders, the ones used by the undercover officers in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Special Investigation Unit to catch culprits in the illegal wildlife trade. No sooner than the man tried to recheck his soft-sided luggage-this time stuffed with dry ice and a plastic pipe filled with a dozen gallbladders-he was arrested. He had violated the Lacey Act, a century-old federal law that prohibits the purchase and transportation of illegally killed wildlife.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks field wardens Kelly Friede (left) and Shane Reno helped recover 20 elk, seven antelope and three bighorn sheep in a four-year investigation of an illegal outfitting operation near the Missouri River Breaks.

"He was charged with a felony and fined $10,000, but he had the money wired and was out of jail before we even wrote the report," says Jim Crop, warden captain for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman. The fines, he notes, are mere pennies for many professional traders in the black market.

The buyer purchased the gallbladders for $150 a piece, but the price in Los Angeles would have been considerably more, Crop says. And the price for each gallbladder could have been as high as his fine had he sold them in Korea.

In Korea, "ungdam," or bear gallbladder, is used as a general tonic for all ailments, but particularly muscle problems. The organ is placed in a clear bottle of liquor, and the afflicted drinks one shot a day until the problem disappears. In China, the gallbladders of bears are used to treat stomach illnesses, hemorrhoids, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, swelling, high fever and eye ailments.

These purported medicinal properties have spurred the increasing value of bear gallbladders throughout Asia, making them a commodity that can't help but be part of the black market-especially in the United States, where grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the sales of black and brown bear gallbladders are largely prohibited.

As the result of an investigation that took Special Agent Doug Goessman of the U.S. Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Illinois in 1989, 350 gallbladders were seized and 13 people were charged. If each gallbladder had sold for top price, some lucky wildlife peddler would have pocketed $245,000. But even though some people paid a price for the poaching, it's hard to say the case was successful; 350 bears lost their lives for organs the size of hot dogs.

And it's not only gallbladders these traders are trafficking-bear penises and paws can also bring a hefty reward on the Asian market. Koreans dry these parts and prepare a powder, which is also used as medicine, Goessman says. Other Asian tinctures are made from velvet deer or elk antlers, which can sell for $250 a gram.

Half a world away, in Montana, poachers don't-and because of the current economic crisis overseas, can't-rely solely on the Asian market to supply their illegal income. But there are plenty of animals in Big Sky Country to provide the cash fix that these wildlife mongers seek. And that's just part of why, in recent years, Montana has become a haven for black-market hunters.

Poacher's Paradise

It's the same reason tourists flock to Montana-the wide-open spaces, the abundance of animals and the scarcity of people-that makes it a poacher's paradise. Not only is it likely that a poacher will go home with a prized animal, it is likely that no one is going to come knocking on his door the next day to make sure it was a legal kill.

"When people consider where they should get an animal, they go to Montana," says Crop. "It's a huge state, and the odds of getting caught are pretty slim."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employs 70 game wardens to cover the 147,138 square miles of Big Sky, the same number of wardens that patrolled Montana's wild lands 50 years ago. A criminal investigation unit, part of the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, works the undercover scene, offering its assistance to uniformed officers whenever possible. But poachers still slip by undetected.

Jeff Darrah, warden captain for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Missoula says poaching in Montana can be a sticky issue. “When a guy’s been hunting for 20 years and the biggest elk of his life steps out on the road in front of him and he shoots it, I hesitate to call it ‘poaching’. It’s more like ‘opportunistic’.”
Photo by Chad Harder

"Montana has some really good game wardens and they do a great job," says Goessman. "But these officers have thousands of square miles that they have to patrol. They have an extremely difficult job."

With the odds stacked in their favor, poachers take their chances and head to the regions most likely to offer the best trophy-eastern Montana for antelope and mule deer, western Montana for moose, sheep and goat, and Glacier for a big ol' grizzly.

"With a state the size of Montana, there are incredible wildlife resources," says Crop. "For the most part they are renewable. There are lots of everything and lots of trophy, big game animals. Many other states do not have the security or habitat like Montana."

A poacher's catch could easily earn him a salary for the year. White-tailed deer antlers have been known to sell for $30,000. An elk head could earn a poacher up to $5,000, and antelope antlers are often worth a couple thousand. But hard-core poachers don't limit themselves to these species-moose, mule deer, bear, eagles, caribou, goats and mountain lions are all up for the illegal taking.

If a poacher were to express a preference, though, the presumable choice would be the bighorn sheep. One mounted bighorn sheep head could win as much as $10,000.

"The biggest commercially sought-after animal in Montana is the bighorn," says Crop. "You have to draw a permit to legally get one, and it is extremely hard to draw one of these permits."

The difficulty of drawing the permits, though, has created something of a status system. Some trophy clubs reward members for what they call a "Grand Slam," catching each of the seven species of sheep. It's just one more incentive that causes some hunters to poach, or to buy an illegally taken trophy.

Poacher's Pain

The incentives for poaching are tainted, however, because the kill doesn't always come without a price. Law-abiding hunters keep a razor-sharp eye out for fishy business, and many won't hesitate to contact local authorities. In 1995, after authorities received tips from local sportsmen, three people were arrested and issued 30 citations, totaling $17,000, for an illegal outfitting operation. One man lost all of his hunting and fishing privileges for seven years.

Unfortunately for investigators, though, many poachers are residents who live in the same community as the game warden. "In my 13 years of being a game warden, I've realized that it's not the out-of-staters who are the hard-core poachers, it is the resident," says Jeff Darrah, warden captain for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Missoula. "He knows when the warden is home and where he should go to get an animal."

Darrah says his phone used to ring late at night with the person on the other end hanging up as soon as he picked up. Some of the calls, he believes, were attempts by local poachers to see whether he was at home or out on patrol.

The mounted head of a bighorn sheep can bring a poacher $10,000, and legal permits are incredibly hard to come by. Last year, the Governor’s office auctioned one such permit for $300,000.
Photo by Chad Harder

Recent experience backs up Darrah's theory that many poachers are locals. In 1998, after a four-year investigation involving 16 federal, state and county law enforcement agencies, 17 people were arrested and charged with poaching and running an illegal outfitting operation near the Missouri River Breaks. Only eight of the 17 people were non-residents.

Officers recovered 20 elk, seven antelope and three bighorn sheep. A total of 45 years of hunting privileges were revoked, and $25,135 collected in fines. Restitution fees for the animals killed could total $80,300 if a judge enforces the maximum fine. "The highest fine for one person so far was about $5,000," says Shane Reno, investigating officer in the case. "But I wish we could have gotten some jail time. Some time for them to sit and think about what they did."

Jail time for poaching has not gathered enough momentum to hail the halls of the Legislature, but other deterrents may be implemented if bills proposed by Senator Duane Grimes, Representative Hal Harper and Senator Fred Thomas pass during the 1999 session. Grimes and Harper hope to demote poachers to remedial hunting school for certain wildlife violations. Thomas is pushing for increased restitution fees for poaching trophy animals, such as bighorn sheep. Now, the restitution fee for a bighorn is $2,000-Thomas proposes to raise it to $30,000. The bill also states that poachers will lose their Montana hunting and fishing license for five years or more if found guilty.

These threats may prevent some people from partaking in illegal activity, but some investigators want penalties that will make a point after poachers are caught. Game wardens are particularly frustrated because judges often impose minimum fines-ostensibly letting people off the hook, and enforcing the idea that crimes against wildlife are not really crimes at all. Some game wardens have said that the public doesn't even see them as law enforcement officials, despite the fact that all wardens must attend the police academy. So maybe it's no surprise that they are pushing for new, alternative deterrents against poaching.

"One of the things I think we need to do is have more creative sentences," says Havre game warden Reno. "If judges don't want to impose monetary fines then we should look at community service, or even making someone write an apology in the local newspaper."

At the conclusion of his recent investigation, Reno asked the judge to require one of the 17 individuals to talk to students in the hunter education classes about poaching. "Maybe focus on a social fine rather than a monetary fine," Reno says. "They stole a huge resource from sportsmen and residents of Montana."

Bloomin' idiots

"I always say there are two things that will turn anyone into bloomin' idiots," says Darrah. "A field of elk and a mountain stream full of spawning rainbow trout."

While some poachers enter the woods searching specifically for the illegal trophy animal, others, called "lucky bastards" by some poachers, just stumble across it. In the same swift motion that causes them to speed through an only-been-red-for-two-seconds red light, they shoot the animal. Before the animal even drops to the ground, they begin trying to figure out who to blame.

"We surmise that most violations are opportunistic," Darrah says. "(The hunter) doesn't set out with the intention of violating the law, but a situation arises where he sees a big elk or a big deer and he makes a rash decision. It's illegal, but I hesitate to call that poaching."

Tinctures can be made from velvet deer or elk antlers, selling for as much as $250 a gram in some Asian countries.
Photo by Chad Harder

But even the sorry hunter has a responsibility, Darrah says. "Just because you turned yourself in doesn't negate the fact that you killed an animal. You still have a responsibility as a sportsman-an animal died for your mistake."

Unfortunately, these "opportunistic poachers" are changing the game of hunting so much that people are worried about hunter behavior and hunter ethics. Hunters especially are worried that a few people, by using lights to search for animals or shooting from the side of the road, are going to ruin the hunt for the rest of them. In December, a citizens' council of hunters, ranchers and outfitters recommended hunter education classes as an option for Big Sky sportsmen, in the hopes of trimming down the number of illegal kills in Montana.

Meanwhile, state rangers are trying to catch some of these bloomin' idiots, slap a dunce cap on them and make them understand hunting rules. One of their most successful tools? Bait-a fake deer, elk, bear or moose stationed near a road under conditions that are obviously illegal, such as at night, on private property or out of hunting season. Every time the poor animal withstands a flurry of bullets, the trigger-puller is slapped with a citation and given a short lesson about shooting from the road. The dunce cap isn't needed in most cases.

"One in every six or seven people will violate the law," says Darrah. "One night, ten out of ten people shot at a mule deer decoy."

The decoys take a major beating, looking more and more haggard as the hunting seasons pass by. But at least decoy poaching has no effect on Montana's wildlife populations.

In the end, while there are many threats to Montana's wildlife, sportsmen and wardens agree that illegal poaching should not be dismissed. Both commercial and opportunistic poaching have had an impact on wildlife populations, depriving the residents of Montana a chance to see what lives in their own backyard. "The people in Montana are extremely lucky, because they have a tremendous wildlife resource," says Goessman. "But it could be gone or depleted greatly by poaching."

It could mean that a legal hunter doesn't have a trophy. Or a hiker doesn't have a photograph of a grazing elk from a backpacking trip. Or a story about a black bear. Or the memory of seeing a moose.

And most people agree that the only way to protect these resources from illegal poaching is increased law enforcement. From the agents in the Butte airport uncovering the black-market sale of bear gallbladders, to the game wardens in Havre halting an illegal outfitter operation, to the hunters in the field who keep their eyes peeled for suspicious activity, the safety of Montana's wildlife is in the hands of those who enjoy it.

You can report illegal wildlife activities on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks tipline at 1-800-TIP-MONT.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Speaking of Features

Tags: ,

Today | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed | Thu
Lunch & Learn at the Poverello

Lunch & Learn at the Poverello @ Poverello Center

Fri., July 21, 12 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

Relevant to News

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation