States get semi-tough on poachers

  • The death of Samson wasn't enough to inspire stiffer poaching penalties

    Scott Pope

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.

Doomed 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.

"There's 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.

The 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 Department.

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.

Hunters get 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."

But in Wyoming, the state Legislature allowed a weapons-confiscation bill to die on the vine as lawmakers rushed to adjourn on March 1.

"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 poachers.

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.

The slaughter 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, D-Boulder.

"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 life.

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.

"We're making 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 Boise, Idaho.

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