For most people involved in hunting, angling and seeking out wildlife for other reasons (e.g. bird watching and photography), getting outdoors is a healthy activity for the mind and spirit. There is, however, a very small group of individuals for whom regulations are too burdensome. Their desire to harvest a trophy animal or make a little money turns these activities from healthy to illegal.
In Utah there are over 1,000 poaching cases reported each year. This is even more appalling as the Wildlife Management Institute reasons only 5 percent of the poaching incidents ever come to light. To be upfront, many of these poaching violations are accidental. Utah’s year-round license makes it is easy to go a couple days before remembering your license has expired. Novice hunters may accidentally shoot an extra hen mallard or hen pheasant on an overcast day or not keep up with changes to the regulations.
Last year I encountered a pair of nimrods in a Bear River Refuge parking lot with an extra pintail in their bag. As they weren’t hiding this bird, it was clear they were unaware the limit for pintails had been reduced. Although these incidents should not be overlooked by law officers, what most people don’t do is accidentally harvest a big game animal.
This spring two families in eastern Utah were convicted of poaching a number of large deer and elk. These violations were egregious enough to land the key perpetrators time in jail. A more interesting poaching case was an Arizona guide that moved to Utah for six months to become a quasi-resident so he could use his accumulated preference points to draw a resident Desert Bighorn Sheep permit. As soon as he drew the tag he moved back to Arizona. This individual was ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution, a $750 fine, lose hunting privileges for the next decade and forfeit the head and horns of the ram. But to get this kind of treatment in court, poachers have to get caught.
One of the big difficulties in the enforcement of hunting and fishing regulations are these activities take place in remote areas at inconvenient times. Furthermore, Utah and Wyoming only have about 75 game wardens each, while Idaho has approximately 110. This means that in most situations, following fish and game rules is an honor system.
As an indication of how rare conservation officers are, I hunt or fish around 75 days a year and get checked once every three or four years. When I do it is almost always at a state or federal waterfowl area. That is why enforcement of fish and game laws is really the responsibility of everybody who spends time outside. States have numbers to report hunting and fishing violations and you should do so if you witness a violation.
If you are caught poaching in Utah the fines are minimal, $750 for an elk or $400 for a deer. What is not minimal is the restitution; $30,000 for a bighorn sheep or $8,000 for large elk (6-point or larger) or deer (greater than 24 inches wide). Many hunters think the biggest cost of getting caught poaching is losing the right to purchase a hunting license. The problem is many of the worst poachers have already lost that right.
Big game, waterfowl and game birds are not the only poached animals. Other protected species that are shot include hawks, eagles and pelicans. People kill these birds to protect game birds and fish even though there is little evidence to support such actions.
A final fish and wildlife violation that seems to be on the rise is animal smuggling. This activity is often related to unique pets such as turtles and snakes. Catching these animals in the wild not only has implications to the populations from which they were captured but also on populations of animals in the areas where they are going. In part because of this type of trafficking there is now a naturalized population of Burmese Pythons in Florida.
The big concerns for smuggling around here are gamefish such as Walleye and Northern Pike. These fish can be a big problem to native fish species. The introduction of pike into Utah Lake several years ago threatens to undermine millions of dollar spent on restoring populations of the endangered June Sucker.
The simple take home message from all this: don’t take or add any animal to or from an ecosystem if you don’t have a permit or license to do so.