Poaching Incidents Highlight FWP Funding Crisis

It has been a memorable start to Montana’s hunting season, and for all the wrong reasons.

It began in Northwest Montana, when a number of whitetail deer were shot in forested areas and farmlands and left to die, essentially amounting to random acts of killing. Despite an upset public, those responsible have not been found.

Later, three elk were poached north of Whitehall — two spikes and one cow were killed and left to rot within close proximity of each other. Again, the perpetrators remain unknown. “This type of activity is selfish and resulted in a gross waste of game,” Warden Captain Sam Sheppard said. “It’s not hunting. It’s stealing from the people of Montana.”

Then, on the opening day of hunting season, dozens put on a display of grossly unethical hunting when they converged on a herd of 500 elk near Canyon Ferry Reservoir east of Helena. Wardens say some hunters actually used their vehicles to block the elk and keep them in flat, open areas. They fired a barrage of bullets into the herd, and some even continued to shoot into the herd after the elk began running. In the end, the “hunters” (and I use the quotes because such unethical practices should not be considered hunting) killed around 30 elk, including an illegally abandoned spike elk and a bull elk seized by wardens.

Unfortunately, these incidents are not anomalies, as poaching and unethical hunting incidents in Montana have become more common. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) counted 40 cases of “organized and professional” poaching last year, which is double the number from 20 years ago. In addition, TIP-MONT — Montana’s toll-free hotline to report poaching or other wildlife and state-lands crimes — receives over 22,000 calls per year. Montana’s 72 field wardens address the concerns brought up by these calls.

Meanwhile, Montana FWP is facing a budget crisis and cannot sustain their current operations. Starting in 2010, their total expenditures exceeded their revenue from license fees and government allocations, and the savings account that they use as a cushion is nearly depleted. They have already implemented significant budget cuts, but they still have to make changes before 2017, when their savings account will no longer cover expenses. Additional budgets cuts and license fee increases are a real possibility.

The Montana Legislature ultimately makes the funding decisions for Montana FWP. The FWP claims that failure to address the funding issue would be “irresponsible” and could lead to detrimental effects in its ability to manage Montana’s fish and wildlife resources. In light of the recent highly publicized incidents of poaching and unethical hunting, the FWP’s argument is sound — less funding for the FWP is not what Montana needs right now.

While Montana FWP will never, of course, be able to prevent all poaching incidents, the rise in poaching means we need FWP resources and oversight more than ever. Poaching is a despicable crime, and in addition to the effects on wildlife and waste of game it induces, these incidents sully Montana’s reputation as a hunting community, potentially dissuading out-of-state hunters from coming into the state and contributing to our economy. In 2012, of the 1.35 million hunting and fishing licenses issued by FWP, 30 percent were issued to nonresidents.

The Montana FWP is asking for your help, encouraging people to make comments online or attend meetings throughout the state. If you are a hunter, angler or recreationist in Montana’s public lands, make your voice heard; it is imperative that the decision makers recognize people’s concerns about the FWP’s capacity to protect Montana’s iconic hunting and fishing heritage.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/choices2015 for more information and to leave your comments.