For years they made their fall pilgrimage from Florida to central Idaho - some to camp and soak up the majestic Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, others to bag an elk, deer, bear or all three.
Each of these hunters - Seminole Indians whose homeland is the swamps of Florida - paid $2,000 for a shot at the big game inhabiting the south side of Idaho’s Lochsa River. Trouble was, these hunters were also on the south side of the law.
Fourteen Seminoles, including tribal council chairman James Billie, wound up pleading guilty to state and federal wildlife charges. Some flew to Idaho to face the music last year.
“They were looking to shoot whatever they could,” said Paul Weyland, special agent at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Law Enforcement. “There were some nice animals killed.”
The defendants in this case are typical of the commercial poaching operations that are bleeding Idaho of its big game. For years, the Seminoles had paid Gordon Frost and his Warm Springs Outfitters to organize their illegal hunting trips.
Frost was sentenced in February to six months in jail. Billie got two years of probation and was fined $3,000, while 21 other defendants - including guides and hunters - received fines and probation totaling $16,000 and 38 years.
The case demonstrates there are no limits to how far poachers will come and how much they will pay for thrills or profit. And it demonstrates how little regard they have for the toll poachings takes on Idahoans’ chances to hunt, photograph or simply watch big game and birds of prey.
“The amount of opportunity we make available to legal hunters is reduced by whatever level of poaching we have,” said John Beecham, wildlife game and research manager for the state Department of Fish and Game. “If it (poaching) is extremely high, then obviously the opportunity we can offer to legal hunters is less.”
Fish and Game computes the number and quality of animals taken each year when it sets harvest limits and dates for the following fall season.
Faced with declining numbers of mature bull elk, the department took a drastic step in March: It will restrict each hunter to just one of Idaho’s 28 hunting zones. The shrinking zones and seasons are driven in part by those who flout them.
“The unlawful commercial operator has the ability to go wherever the bigger animals are whenever he wants, day or night,” said Gary Power, regional Fish and Game supervisor in Salmon. “If the success rates are high and they’re creaming the resource, it doesn’t take a lot to have an impact.”
Even in spring, with the fall deer and elk hunt half a year away, poachers will descend on Idaho to snatch big game antlers that will soon be covered in valuable spring velvet. The blood-filled skin covers growing antlers and is sought by Asian, and even some American, health enthusiasts.
Legitimate elk ranchers remove the velvet-covered antlers surgically and they grow back. Poachers will kill the animal for the velvet alone.
“Essentially, what they’re doing is stealing from the legitimate person,” Power said.
There’s no way to tell how much impact poaching has on hunting and sightseeing. No one believes the activity is making a serious dent yet statewide in species numbers. There are more than 100,000 elk in Idaho, and about 25,000 black bears.
“In our modern system of wildlife law enforcement and regulations, my feeling is with elk or most of the deer populations, commercial or illegal activity isn’t significant enough to cause a decline in quality on a big scale,” said Fish and Game senior conservation officer Greg Johnson of Bonners Ferry.
But poaching can decimate a wildlife population in specific regions. Idaho has 86 elk-management areas where herds need 10 mature bull elk and 100 cows to produce healthy offspring and maintain populations.
The same is true in isolated pockets where less populous species live, like bighorn sheep and moose.
Bill Goodnight, formerly of Idaho Fish and Game and now of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, is one observer who discounts the impact of poaching on wildlife. Goodnight said the issue is one of simple fairness.
He cites as an example a poaching incident that drew a statewide outcry last year when a party from Oregon killed four elk out of season, including one that was among the largest ever taken by hunters in Idaho.
“People apply all their lives,” Goodnight said, “to try to get one of the few permits available in Owyhee County - without success. And then someone totally disregards the laws and runs down there and takes four of them.”
“Culturally, this is just outrageous,” added Maurice Hornocker, founder of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Moscow. “This commercialization of wildlife and the cheating of law-abiding citizens of their right to pursue a monster bull elk in Owyhee County.
“There is a group of hunters, wealthy people who will do whatever it takes to do it.”