Drawn by big money and small fines, small-time crooks are turning to wildlife poaching.
Game wardens have responded with a tougher, no-nonsense approach.
Modern game wardens “may seem a little unfriendly and aloof, but we can’t be the old back-slapping buddies that we used to be,” explained Gary Hompland, Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Jerome-based regional conservation officer.
“The people we’re after are not sportsmen, and they’re not hunters. They’re wildlife killers,” Hompland said.
A 1992 study found that 20 percent of Fish and Game violators had prior criminal records, Hompland said.
Hard-core commercial poachers kill for trophy heads and antlers, which are sought by wildlife collectors around the world. Antlers, particularly ones covered with velvet-like fuzz, can fetch $100 a pound from Oriental buyers - the antlers are ground into traditional medicines and sold in the Orient for up to $100 an ounce.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the illegal trade in American wildlife to be at least $200 million a year.
“A lot of people have no idea of the scale of money we’re talking about,” Hompland said, noting that a world-class bighorn sheep trophy is on the market for $100,000.
Last year, a Twin Falls man offered a sheep permit for sale for $20,000.
“Some of the real deadbeats in society have found they can make real money without getting killed, or paying substantial fines,” said Carl Nellis, regional Fish and Game supervisor.
Commercial poachers may be the most reprehensible wildlife killers, but there are plenty of other poachers who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, Hompland said.
“In many rural communities, poaching is a way of life passed down from father to son,” he said.
In a study of 60 Idaho poachers, University of Idaho sociologist Gary Machlis found that every one started hunting illegally before they were 14 years old. Many said they “don’t see what we do as poaching,” Machlis said. Instead, they see themselves as “sportsmen” who obey their “own” laws.