Thankfully, news of poaching around Montana doesn’t dominate the headlines on a weekly basis, at least not this time of year. However, a recent story out of Ravalli and Beaverhead Counties is particularly disturbing.
Three Ravalli County men are being charged with illegally poaching at least nine black bears using bait. According to court documents outlining the reason for the charges, the investigating officer said the bears were shot simply for their hide and skulls.
Wildlife officials are calling it one of the largest bear poaching cases in state history.
Still, despite all of this, all the charges the three men are facing are misdemeanors. They may lose their hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for several years if convicted, though they likely won’t see any jail time.
The fines they are likely to face total about $11,500 for all three men.
Poaching is still a severe problem in Montana and the West. It stems from a culture of disregard for state game laws that dates back to the frontier days. While the vast majority of hunters abide by and respect the hunting, fishing and trapping laws of Montana, those who don’t give the rest of us a black eye.
Montana is one of the original members of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. The IWVC is now comprised of 42 states, from Alabama to Washington and California to New Hampshire. The IWVC means that if you lose your hunting, fishing or trapping privileges in one of the compact states, you lose them in all compact states. The IWVC adds some teeth to Montana’s laws.
But our game laws still don’t carry stiff enough penalties, which might be one of the reasons for the poaching problem. Imagine if convicted poachers were required to spend six months on house arrest, forfeit the vehicle used to commit the crime or lose their hunting privileges for life.
While our jails are already overcrowded and might not have room for most people convicted of poaching, fines and other penalties should be stiffer with the goal of deterring would-be poachers while showing the non-hunting public that wildlife crimes are being taken very seriously.
Unfortunately, the percentage of the population that hunts is dwindling. According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, about 13.7 million Americans older than 16 hunt, which is about 6 percent of the population. Over the years, the number of Americans who hunt has remained relatively steady, but the percentage of the population that hunters represent continues to decline.
This comes at a difficult time for wildlife and wildlife habitat. Hunters and fishermen are the backbone of the conservation effort in Montana and the rest of the country. They give money through donations, license fees and taxes on sporting equipment. They also give their time through a variety of conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
In the same way the threat of head injuries deters parents from getting their children involved in football, the ongoing problem of poaching can cast a dim light over the sport of hunting and give a population that is already more urbanized less of a reason to participate in it.
True hunters, who value both the legacy and future of the sport, understand the importance of fair chase. They know the difference between a poacher and a hunter is equal to the difference between a banker and a con artist — one is a steward of the resource, one is a thief. Though they both may wear the same clothes and use the same tools, that’s where the similarities end.
So, as hunters and sportsmen, it’s time we push our agencies and lawmakers to make poaching penalties harsher. Additionally, we need to be quick to turn in those who violate our game laws.
We believe the future of our sport depends on it.
— The Helena Independent Record