By Eric Barker
Nobody knows just how many animals are killed by poachers, but game wardens say the number is likely shocking.
That’s because they know they only learn about a small percentage of illegal kills.
“Game wardens forever have often wondered how many animals are being taken unlawfully. It’s a question we want to answer,” said Mark Hill, a senior conservation officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston. “We know the amount we detect, the raw amount, but we don’t know what our violation detection rate is.”
For illustrative purposes, he and his colleagues Barry Cummings, who patrols the Moscow area, and George Fischer, who works in the Grangeville area, placed their detection rate at 10 percent, a number they say would be fantastic.
“Ten percent is impossible,” Hill said while Cummings and Fischer guffawed. “There is no way it’s 10 percent.”
Last year, they know of 30 elk, four moose, 13 mule deer and 57 whitetail deer that were poached in one fashion or another in the Clearwater Region. If those cases represent 10 percent of all big game violations, it would mean about 300 elk, 40 moose, 130 mule deer and 570 whitetail deer were taken unlawfully.
The officers want people to think about those numbers and to be as outraged as many hunters are about the effect wolves and other predators have on big game populations.
“It’s real easy for people to blow a gasket about wolf predation. They are very passionate about it, they are very irate about it and they are livid about it,” Fischer said. “Yet there is a two-legged wolf out there that is probably killing as many or more than wolves. Wolves are causing an impact, there is no doubt about it; I don’t want to downplay that at all, but two-legged wolves are probably killing more or stealing more game than wolves. That is the shock-and-awe message.”
If their detection rate is 5 percent, something they say is much more realistic, then the numbers rise to 600 elk, 80 moose, 260 mule deer and more than 1,000 whitetail. If those numbers were attributed to predators, Cummings said, people would take action.
“Holy buckets, we would be setting budgets aside. We would develop a group to figure out what it was and we would develop a plan to deal with it, but we won’t even talk about what impact this has on wildlife,” Cummings said. “Why not?”
The reason, they say, is too many people don’t look at wildlife crimes as a crime against them. For example, Cummings said there is a $10,000 civil penalty in Idaho for poaching a moose, and a $750 fine for illegally killing an elk. He often makes that point to hunter education classes he speaks to. He asks the students if they would call the police if someone stole $750 from them or from a friend or neighbor. The answer is an overwhelming yes.
“So why wouldn’t you be that upset if somebody took an elk unlawfully, because essentially they stole $750 from the sportsmen of Idaho, including the opportunity to harvest that animal.”
Poaching means different things to different people. Some see it as the criminals who shoot game and leave it to waste, or greedily take any animal they see. Hill said his definition is simple: anyone who violates hunting rules to take an animal. It includes things like trespassing, shooting from a road, hunting over salt and party hunting, — where hunters combine efforts and allow hunting partners to shoot animals for them or to use their tags.
Too often, Hill said, people are not willing to report those sorts of crimes.
“I don’t know if it’s because they almost look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘If I turn in so and so, I’m going to be reflecting on some of the things I do and they will turn me in.’ ”
There have been a limited number of studies trying to determine the poaching detection rate. More than 40 years ago, a University of Idaho graduate student replicated poaching by placing road kill deer in highly visible fields near roads and then shot a gun to see how many people would report it. He got responses less than 2 percent of the time.
A study by Anthony Novack of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used anonymous surveys to ask hunters if they had broken hunting laws. The study isn’t finished and is expected to be published later this year, but intial findings indicate about 12 percent of people admitted to driving on closed roads while deer or elk hunting. About 9 percent admitted they trespassed while hunting, and 7 percent said they had allowed someone else to use their tag, tagged a deer or elk killed by somebody else or failed to tag a deer or elk.
Novack said figuring out how many people cheat is a difficult task.
“It’s that moral question, the true test is what you do when nobody is looking and when you are out hunting there is hardly anybody looking,” he said.
Hill pointed to an Oregon study on mule deer mortality. Officials at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife placed radio collars on 500 mule deer and followed them between 2005 and 2010. When one died, they tried to get to it as quickly as possible to determine the cause of death.
They found of those shot, 19 were killed illegally and 21 were killed legally.
Hill said the study only measured illegal kills as those that were out of season or the wrong gender for an open season. It didn’t cover things like party hunting, trespassing or hunting over bait.
The officers hope that more people will speak up when they see or learn of a hunting violation.
“What we need to do is get more people to make the call and report violators that they know of and more people need to say enough is enough,” he said. “Those activities that have been going on for decades — road hunting, party hunting, trespassing — they should not be tolerated.”