November 10, 1996

Mobile Target Fish And Wildlife Department Hopes Moose Decoy Will Flush Out Poachers, Separating Honest Hunters From Law-Breaking Shooters

John Miller Correspondent
 
Tags:hunting

After 24 moose were illegally killed in 1995-96 in Eastern Washington, Fish and Wildlife Department officers here say they have a moose-killing epidemic on their hands.

In response, agents armed with a moose decoy have declared open season on poachers in Stevens, Pend Orielle and Spokane counties, targeting outlaws who shoot the docile creatures and abandon them to rot in the woods.

“These are thieves and bandits doing this,” said Mike Whorton, the agency’s regional enforcement chief. “I want to distinguish between responsible hunters and people just out in the woods who are thrill seekers and killers.”

Four fish and wildlife agents - John McColgin, Rod Bliss, Michelle Steinmetz, and Ray Kahler - got up before sunrise on Oct. 24 to lug the awkward faux-moose about 30 yards off a fire road above Newman Lake. There’s a moose trail there, but more importantly, it’s the killing ground where a pair of bulls and two cows were shot last year.

The moose decoy is on loan from the Canadian Conservation Officers Service in Grand Forks, British Columbia. The hide, stretched over a styrofoam mold, has been used in sting operations since 1993 and already sports several holes where poachers took their best shot - and wound up on the wrong side of the law.

After setting the six-foot lifelike prop in place, McColgin and Bliss drove down the mountain road - the only access to the area - to set up surveillance in the valley while Steinmetz and Kahler hid themselves in the woods a hundred meters from the decoy.

“Our job is to catch somebody, even though it can be boring,” McColgin said. “But when we can go a week and not have anybody shoot at the decoy, that’s a confirmation in itself that there are a lot of honest people in the woods.”

Ray Kahler was the officer who found a wounded cow just 20 miles from here Oct. 20 on the north shoulder of Mount Spokane. The moose had been shot in the flank, and Kahler had the rotten duty of putting the animal down. The calf, who remained near the mother until the end, won’t survive the winter.

The shooting of these animals is senseless, Kahler said. No meat has been taken from a single moose poached in Eastern Washington this year or in 1995.

Regardless of whether or not poachers shoot at a decoy or at a live moose, they can count on going to court.

In a 1994 state Supreme Court decision entitled State v. Walsh, poachers arrested while spotlighting deer argued they were shooting at a decoy and as a result couldn’t be prosecuted. The state ruled against them, saying big game hunting is defined by the act of shooting or simply aiming a weapon with the intent of killing an animal - decoy or otherwise.

Evan Jacoby, Fish and Wildlife Department legal counsel in Olympia, said Washington state has some of the toughest laws on the books against poachers.

If you’re poaching with a weapon, Jacoby said, “you can kiss it goodbye.”

In addition, poachers risk year-long jail terms, often lose their vehicles. The rig McColgin and Bliss drive during stakeouts was confiscated in a King County poaching case. Poachers also may face civil and criminal penalties in excess of $3,000.

On Oct. 22, Eastern Washington agents were using the moose decoy on the Spokane-Stevens County line when a 4x4 rumbled to a halt. Two men sprung out, shotguns at the ready, and debated how they would roll the carcass down the hillside into their truck.

Whether the men realized the moose was a fake or it was simply their better judgement that kept them from squeezing the trigger, Kahler and Steinmetz say they aren’t sure. But north of the border, Canadian Conservation Service officers said most poachers they’ve caught rarely bother to make a positive ID on a decoy.

“Most hunters shoot within 15 or 20 seconds of stopping their vehicle,” said Kelly Dahl, who has led 30 moose decoy patrols. “They don’t take enough time to assess safety precautions or properly identify the animals.”

The Idaho Fish & Game Department’s Panhandle Region expects to finish work on its own moose decoy this month. On the wall in his office, conservation officer Steve Agte has a map with 28 X’s on it - one for every moose poached on the Panhandle in 1995.

Two-thirds of those animals were shot and left to rot.

“We just have a really high moose population, and I guess we have a lot of stupid people,” Agte said.

As a result, education about moose poaching has taken a high priority for the agency. Agte has spoken with sportsmen’s groups about the problem, in addition to posting signs in the woods and putting up posters at county fairs to give potential moose killers second thoughts.

So far this year, Idaho officers have discovered just six cases of moose poaching. In four of those they’ve apprehended suspects.

In Eastern Washington, officers say that in addition to the moose decoy operation, they’ll be stepping up routine patrols to put a halt to the killing.

“This is murder in the woods,” Steinmetz said. “The problem is, the relatives of the victims can’t talk to us about the suspects.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Wanted The Washington Department of Fish and Game is seeking two male suspects, possibly Asians, who shot a cow moose on Saturday, Oct. 20 with a .223-cal. semi-automatic rifle from a canopied silver Nissan truck near Conklin and Jefferson roads in Spokane County. Anonymous tips can be reported on this or any Washington poaching incident at (800) 477-6224. Rewards for tips on moose poaching cases in Washington can total $1,200. In Idaho, where rewards in poaching cases have topped $20,000, call (800) 632-5999.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Wanted The Washington Department of Fish and Game is seeking two male suspects, possibly Asians, who shot a cow moose on Saturday, Oct. 20 with a .223-cal. semi-automatic rifle from a canopied silver Nissan truck near Conklin and Jefferson roads in Spokane County. Anonymous tips can be reported on this or any Washington poaching incident at (800) 477-6224. Rewards for tips on moose poaching cases in Washington can total $1,200. In Idaho, where rewards in poaching cases have topped $20,000, call (800) 632-5999.

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