In mid-October, Idaho Fish and Game conservation officers set up an artificial doe mule deer close to a road near Sublette in southeastern Idaho. Killing antlerless deer in that area is legal only for youth hunters, and shooting from a road is illegal for anyone. Yet, during the three-hour enforcement operation, the department issued 10 citations and four warnings to five adults and four youths who had shot at the decoy a total of 31 times.
One of those cited was an adult shooting from an ATV loaded in the back of a truck.
“He was using it like some sort of mobile tree-stand,” said District Conservation Officer Ryan Hilton.
The incident was a sobering example of how many people are willing to take an illegal shortcut—commonly known as poaching—to get a big-game animal.
Illegal hunting activities in Idaho include:
- Killing a big-game animal without a license or tag.
- Hunting out of season.
- Hunting by a nonresident who has obtained a resident tag, generally from a resident friend.
- Using a weapon not permitted in a particular hunt.
- An adult hunting in a youth-only hunt.
- Shooting from a vehicle or road.
- Killing an animal, such as an endangered species, for which there is no legal season.
The Department of Fish and Game admits that it has only a vague idea of how many game animals are killed illegally.
“It’s so hard to get a handle on it,” said Clearwater Region Conservation Officer Mark Hill, who’s in the process of creating a computer program to produce a map of unlawful wildlife harvests throughout the state.
However, Hill said, that information will probably understate the true extent of the problem. He cited a study of deer ecology in south-central Oregon that incidentally collected data showing more deer killed illegally during the study than were killed legally. From June 2005 to September 2011, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife radio-collared 591 mule deer. During the study, 216 deer were found dead. Of the 118 animals with a known cause of mortality, 49 were killed by hunters (other main causes of death were 38 deer killed by predators and 21 by motor vehicles).
Of the hunted deer, 23 were killed in season and 26 were killed out of season (study author DeWaine Jackson cautions that those determinations were made from evidence found at the site, not from convictions). The study did not address other illegal methods that may have been used.
Hill also cites a study of closed-season hunting violations done by a University of Idaho student in the 1970s that showed that only 1-2 percent of those violations were reported by witnesses. He said a similar study in Maine produced similar results.
“I don’t know what our detection rate is,” Hill said. “I’m sure it varies by species and by violation. We might be at 5 percent, but start doing the math and there’s a pile of [dead] wildlife out there.”
Hill said most incidents of illegal killing are opportunistic, such as the violations captured by the sting near Sublette, and not carried out by hard-core poachers. He said most hunters who violate the law “get out in the field and their need to harvest outweighs their ethical boundaries.”
“We need a cultural shift among the hunting public to raise the ethical bar among hunters,” he said.
Hill said the department doesn’t know how many illegally killed animals are shot by a hunter who would have eventually taken an animal legally anyway and how many are killed in addition to the legal harvest.
In either case, he said, illegal kills remove hunting opportunities for others.
“Those animals are being robbed from the honest sportsmen,” he said.
Given the likely high number of illegally taken animals, Hill said, hunters ought to be as concerned about that as they are about wolf predation.
Magic Valley Region Conservation Officer Josh Royse, who covers Blaine County, said that during the past season, there were more than the usual number of incidents in the region of hunters’ killing a deer or elk but not taking the meat—an illegal activity known as “waste.” One of those incidents occurred in the East Fork of the Big Wood River drainage around the end of October.
Royse said most incidents of waste involve animals killed far from a road—apparently by hunters who shot before thinking about how much work would be involved in getting the animal out.
“People underestimate that repeatedly,” he said. “Oftentimes what comes out is not the meat but the antlers. Ego tends to drive them.”
Royse said there are occasional cases in the region of “thrill killing”—hunters who shoot as many animals as they can in one location and leave most or all of the meat.
Wayne Clayton, co-owner of High Desert Sports in Hailey, a hunting and fishing supply store, said he thinks most poaching incidents in the area are committed by hunters from outside the Wood River Valley. He said he knows about 500 local hunters, and guesses that about 80 percent are more interested in the experience than in getting an animal. He said most usually wait for a deer or elk that has some trophy value as well as providing meat.
“If they don’t shoot anything, it’s not a big deal for them,” he said. “They’re looking for something that’s harder to find.”
Clayton said he thinks local hunters have higher ethical standards than do hunters elsewhere, partly because many come from places that don’t provide the hunting opportunities that Idaho does, and they realize that hunting is a privilege, not a right. He said he thinks almost all local hunters would report any poaching incidents that they witnessed, “because it just flat pisses you off.”
“It’s insulting to them if they’ve been working their butts off and following the rules,” he said.
Blaine County archery hunter John Reagle also said local hunters have little tolerance for poaching and realize that without hunting regulations, there wouldn’t be any hunting at all.
Idaho code provides a maximum of a $1,000 fine and a six-month jail sentence for misdemeanor hunting violations, but most convictions result in far more lenient sentences. In the Sublette cases, each of the five adults cited pleaded guilty to shooting from a road and agreed to pay $160 in fines and court costs as well as $480 in restitution to the Department of Fish and Game for the cost of its enforcement operation.
As an additional deterrent, Hill advocates passage of a forfeiture law, which would allow authorities to confiscate property such as weapons and ATVs used in an illegal hunt. He said such laws have had a “tremendous impact” in states where they’ve been enacted.
Despite his strict attitude toward poaching, Clayton said he thinks violations by local hunters are usually mistakes, and those should be treated leniently. He said that by revoking hunting licenses and confiscating the animals, the Department of Fish and Game inhibits hunters who made a mistake from turning themselves in.
“Even to the best hunter, things happen out there,” he said.