Side roads off Interstate 90 near Lookout Pass offer a fair chance for bagging an elk and a very good chance for nailing an elk poacher.
For eight years, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden Doug Dryden has set up the department’s elk decoy on the same road, about one mile on the Montana side of the Montana-Idaho border. The ploy is designed to catch poachers in the act.
“Every single time I run it, I nail ‘em,” Dryden says. “And all of ‘em are from Shoshone County in Idaho - from Mullan or Wallace or Kellogg.”
The excuses all sound alike. “It’s always the same thing,” he said. “Oh, I didn’t know I was in Montana. Or, I shot it in Idaho and trailed it over into Montana.
“And the classic is, ‘Where did you come from?’ “
Dryden charges the poachers with illegally shooting simulated wildlife - the elk decoy - as well as shooting from a vehicle.
With another $100 restitution charge tacked on for damage to the expensive, remote-controlled robotic decoy, the fines run to more than $700.
The most recent arrest of an Idaho hunter on Oct. 19 is symptomatic of a widespread and historic pattern of poaching in Montana by Idaho residents along the border.
Idaho agents say there’s a similar problem of Montana poachers working in portions of Idaho.
Patrolling that vast stretch of border for hunting and fishing violations on the Montana side is the responsibility of just three FWP wardens. Dryden’s in charge of 80 miles of it himself, mostly remote backcountry, most of it in Mineral County.
Dryden spends much of his time in the fall patrolling the state-line backcountry by horseback. But the biggest poaching problems occur along several loop roads that run through Montana and Idaho and connect with I-90 on both sides of the border.
“Guys that poach like loop roads so they can get out different ways after the shooting starts,” Dryden says.
Big-game poaching along the border goes on year-round, Dryden says. But the activity heats up in the two to three weeks between Idaho’s earlier hunting season-opener and Montana’s.
“Everybody who’s lived around here a long time recognizes this has been a problem forever,” said Shaun Donovan, Mineral County attorney since 1979. He has prosecuted all of Dryden’s poaching cases that have gone to trial. “The geography up there around the border, I had not realized how really conducive it is for people to just run over the hill from Kellogg and Wallace.”
Dryden says he issues about a half-dozen tickets each year to Idaho residents for hunting violations. He warns many more and believes many more incidents go undetected.
“When we’ve used decoys, we make sure not to put them 50 yards over the line so an Idaho guy doesn’t have a good-faith argument on where they are,” Donovan says.
“We place the decoys 1 to 1-1/2 miles inside Montana and there’s no problem getting people to shoot at it.”
Most of the Idaho poaching in Montana is clearly intentional and premeditated, Dryden adds.
Dryden’s enforcement area may be one of the worst for poaching along the border because of the heavy traffic on I-90. But his FWP colleagues in Thompson Falls and Troy have similar problems.
“The idea I want to get across to our hunters is they’re stealing our game,” Dryden said. “My goal as a warden is to get the sportsmen fired up about the problem. They need to tell the warden about violations.”
As for Idaho poachers, Dryden says he hopes they get the message he’s out to get them.