A dramatic rise in flagrant cases of wildlife poaching has inspired a batch of new legislation that could truly put the hurt on criminal hunters in the West.
Anti-poaching bills with stiffer fines and
penalties are advancing in the New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and
Idaho legislatures. But lawmakers in Wyoming and Colorado recently
rejected efforts to get tough on poachers.
legislation in those states hints at a Westwide dilemma for
anti-poaching forces: Lawmakers don't view wildlife crime with the
same outrage as they view armed robbery.
a perception out there that wildlife crimes are not criminal acts,"
said Russ Pollard, enforcement coordinator for the Wyoming Game and
Fish Department. "Excuse me, but those animals belong to the state;
they belong to the people."
A century after
"great white hunters' slaughtered buffalo, common poaching
incidents such as killing an elk out of season, spotlighting
animals at night, putting a friend's tag on an animal so you can
shoot another one, are all misdemeanors in five of 10 Western
states. Meanwhile, prices in the black market for trophy antlers
and other wildlife parts continue to rise. Wildlife enforcement
officers say they see an alarming number of dead deer and elk left
to rot with their racks removed.
proliferation of poaching has spawned a new generation of
anti-poaching activists in New Mexico. "When a person rips off a
convenience store with a gun, they go to jail," middle schooler
Steve Silberer recently told New Mexico lawmakers. "But when
someone slaughters game illegally, he gets a fine and maybe loses
his hunting privileges for a few years. Is this right?"
Silberer and about 500 students associated with
New Mexico's "Wild Friends' environmental education program are
sponsoring a bill that doubles and triples fines for repeat
offenders. The bill recently passed both houses of the Legislature
and is expected to be signed by Gov. Gary Johnson.
New Mexico, Utah and Washington already allow
for the confiscation of weapons and vehicles used in the commission
of wildlife crimes - two tools that take a big bite out of
poaching, officials say.
"It's pretty tough to go
home and tell your wife, "Honey, I just lost my new truck,"
"''''said John Crenshaw, spokesman for the New Mexico Game and Fish
Night crews set up a decoy deer to
enforce the law, Crenshaw said, and if poachers shoot at the decoy,
they get arrested and lose their rifles and vehicles. In 1991, 287
vehicles stopped at decoys, and the occupants of 35 vehicles fired
at decoys. In 1994, 119 vehicles stopped at decoys, and 22 people
shot at the realistic but fake deer.
mad and some claim entrapment when game officers confiscate
equipment, but "it's free choice," Crenshaw says. "Those guys make
their own choice whether to shoot or not."
in Wyoming, the state Legislature allowed a weapons-confiscation
bill to die on the vine as lawmakers rushed to adjourn on March
"The Legislature was in an anti-Big Brother
mood," said Don Miller, spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish.
"They called it the "gun-grabbing bill."
Lawmakers in Idaho have taken aim at
spotlighting - the practice of freezing animals with powerful light
beams in order to shoot them. State Sen. John Andreason, a
long-time elk hunter and Boise Republican, introduced a bill that
would slap poachers with hefty fines, a lifetime license
revocation, and confiscation of firearms, vehicles and equipment.
Andreason was chagrined to learn that even with more than 200
hunting groups in support, the majority of a Senate committee in
the Idaho Legislature was not willing to get that tough on
Andreason forged ahead with a
watered-down bill that still increases fines and can revoke a
poacher's hunting privileges for life. The bill passed the Idaho
Senate by a 30-3 vote on March 6.
in 1995 of a celebrity trophy bull elk by a poacher with a crossbow
inspired a bill with stiffer penalties for poachers in Colorado.
The elk, named "Samson" by locals, was a frequent sight as it
wandered around Estes Park at the entrance to Rocky Mountain
National Park. Even so, on Feb. 22, the House Appropriations
Committee in the Colorado Legislature killed the anti-poaching
bill, sponsored by freshman Rep. Mark Udall,
"I'm bloodied," Udall said. "I'll
bring something back next year."
That Udall is a
member of the Udall family of public servants, that he's a Democrat
in a Republican-controlled House, and that he's from trendy Boulder
produced at least three strikes against the bill, observers said.
Several newspapers in the state, however, scolded lawmakers for
killing the measure.
In Nevada, lawmakers are
studying a bill sponsored by the Nevada Division of Wildlife that
would increase to 10 years the maximum time for license revocation.
And in Montana, a bill that allows for forfeiture of weapons used
in wildlife crimes is still alive. The bill also has a "three
strikes and you're out" provision: A person convicted of poaching
three times loses hunting privileges for
Tough legislation may be a deterrent to
poaching, wildlife officials say, but it is no cure-all. In
Washington, which has the toughest anti-poaching laws in the West,
new poachers continue to replace the old, says Tony De La Torre,
assistant law enforcement chief.
believers out of our past customers, but then we get a batch of new
players," he says. "It's the new faces that are a problem."
The writer lives in