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One of the hunters was a local preacher with a child in the passenger seat. Another was a retired highway patrolman from Oregon. Another was a well-respected member of a sportsmen's group. Darrah remembers walking up to the vehicle with the sportsman inside. "He rolled down the window and I said, 'You've gotta be kidding me.'"
The next year, Darrah and his fellow wardens received a tip that poachers were heading to a place called Coyote Meadows, off the same forest road where they'd busted 10 poachers in a row. It was about 2 a.m. when the wardens placed a buck decoy at a 90-degree bend in the road, and then hid in nearby bushes. Minutes later, a truck carrying three men rumbled toward them. The truck stopped, and a passenger stepped out with his rifle and fired at the decoy.
"There's nothing like that when you're sitting that close, just feet away, just listening to this," Darrah says. "You're in the still of the night, and when the gun goes off like that and you know it's illegal...it's not just a bang, it's a ker-freaking-bang!"
With the deer still standing, the driver stepped out of the truck with his rifle, mocked his buddy's poor aim, and fired. Ker-bang!
That was enough. Darrah jumped out of the bushes and yelled, "Fish and Game!"
The surprise apparently caused one of the poachers to wet his pants. When he stepped out of the warden's truck after getting a ticket, he left behind a "big soiled stain on the seat cover," Darrah says. "We scared the crap out of him, I guess."
During the first few years they hunted poachers near Butte, Darrah says he and his fellow wardens about doubled the number of poaching cases statewide, from around 70 to 150.
"The decoy has been very, very valuable," he says. "It's not as effective today as it was then, because the word has gotten out—and that's cool, because that's what we wanted to happen. If it takes worrying about whether it's a decoy or not, that instant that it takes gives an animal maybe the time it needs to get away from being poached."
1-800-TIP-MONT is the state's hotline for reporting wildlife crimes. In recent years, the hotline has received about 2,200 calls a year. But this year, FWP's Brian Shinn, the TIP-MONT coordinator, expects the hotline to get about 2,600 calls by Jan. 1, which would be a record.
"There's a couple obvious reasons, and technology would be one of them," Shinn says. "People are in the field now with cellphones, and they see [violations] immediately and they call them in immediately, instead of going home and stewing on it and forgetting about it."
The second reason, Shinn says, is education. "More and more people are educated on the fact that this number exists."
But it's also true that there's been an uptick in poaching cases this year. Shinn calls it a "pretty devastating year," especially in northwest Montana. "This has been, as far as I can see, the worst year of people just shooting things and leaving them lay."
So perhaps Shinn and fellow FWP staffers who field so many grim TIP-MONT calls welcome the ones they can't help but laugh about.
This year or last—Shinn isn't sure which, since he says all of the calls run together in his memory—a boy, who we'll call Tommy, dialed TIP-MONT and Shinn answered.
"I'd like to report a shooting from a vehicle," the boy said, and he provided the shooter's name and the vehicle's license plate number.
Then Shinn heard in the background, "Tommy, who are you calling?"
"I'm turning you in, Uncle Bob," the boy said. "You're not allowed to shoot out the window."
Tommy had busted his own uncle.
It's an anecdote that makes Shinn believe that the hunting culture is changing. "Kids are telling the adults how to hunt now, and I think that's kind of cool," he says.
Another FWP staffer shared the following TIP-MONT call on the condition of anonymity. Shinn can't confirm or deny it.
During this past hunting season, a woman driving down a highway spotted an injured goose on the side of the road. She pulled over and huddled around it to keep it warm, and called for an FWP warden to come and save it. A warden arrived a while later to discover that the goose wasn't a goose at all. It was a goose decoy that evidently had fallen out of the the back of someone's vehicle.
Shinn can confirm a different call. Recently, an upset woman reported a turkey laying in the road. She told TIP-MONT that the turkey just didn't look right; something had happened to it. So Shinn dispatched a warden.
"Long story short," Shinn says, "the warden...goes down there, and it was a Butterball turkey from a store that had fallen out of somebody's truck and was lying in the middle of the road, and the lady thought it was a poached turkey.
"People don't realize that [turkeys] don't come wrapped in the wild, I guess," Shinn adds. "That's the kind of stuff we have to deal with on occasion."