Thousands of hunters spent the season opener last weekend scouring Montana for big game. Through November, they'll be putting in a good deal of time and effort in hopes of bagging an animal. That's in addition to the good deal of money they've already spent on tags.
And that's why hunters should find it particularly galling that poaching appears to be on the rise. However, Montana's wildlife belongs to all Montana residents, and it's high time we all did something about it.
State game wardens have increased their public awareness efforts and are catching more poachers than ever. Even so, the number of illegal kills has increased noticeably. The targets include deer and bear mostly, but also wolf, moose and other large animals.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency investigated about 40 new cases of "organized and professional poaching" in a single year - about double what the number from 20 years ago.
A look at some recent sentences provides one reason why poachers might feel the risk is worth it.
Just this month, two men in Kalispell were sentenced for poaching 10 whitetail deer last winter. They killed the deer out of season and left the carcasses to rot.
Levi Anderson and Hadyn Johnson both pleaded guilty. Their punishment? Anderson has to pay a total $4,950 and cannot hunt, fish or trap for 10 years. Johnson will pay $4,200 and can't hunt, fish or trap for 20 years.
Another example: In August, the last of four young men caught poaching deer in the Columbia Falls area was sentenced. Added all together, the sentences for the four total $16,435 in fines and a hunting prohibition of just 51 years.
That's it. No jail time. While at least one of the men was initially sentenced to six months in jail, that sentence was suspended.
So it's little wonder poachers continue to illegally kill Montana's wildlife.
The penalty for poaching needs to really sting. A conviction for intentionally, illegally, repeatedly killing wildlife ought to mean the automatic loss of hunting privileges in Montana - for life. Because Montana is one of 41 states that honor the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, which guarantees that those who have their hunting, fishing and trapping privileges taken away in Montana will lose them in all member states also, this loss would carry some real weight.
However, taking away the privilege to hunt legally from someone who has already demonstrated a willingness to kill wildlife illegally - however long that prohibition might be in place - ultimately doesn't mean much. It might be far more meaningful to prohibit poachers from owning firearms.
Also, the fine for poaching needs to more closely reflect the value of Montana's wildlife. A good place to start might be $1,000 per animal.
Even better, however, would be some actual jail time. This legislative session, Montana's lawmakers ought to take a serious look at the minimum penalties for poaching, and work on giving them more bite.
Finally, Montanans need to take a more active role turning over these scofflaws. To report a suspected case of poaching, call 1-800-TIP-MONT. Callers can choose to remain anonymous, and if their report leads to the arrest and conviction of a poacher, they might also be eligible for a reward.
In any case, helping to protect Montana's wildlife from poachers is reward enough.