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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.