Take three wolves, three elk and 21 grizzlies, and it would appear that northwest Montana has a poaching problem.
In the last two years, the killing of 21 grizzlies broke records that have stood in northwest Montana since the Endangered Species Act became law 30 years ago. Typically, grizzly poachings average about three per year.
Earlier this month, three wolf carcasses were also found in the upper left-hand portion of the state, and those deaths are currently under investigation. At about the same time, three apparently poached elk, one missing its head and antlers, were also found.
Asked if there’s a poaching problem in the area, or if funding cuts that have caused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) office in Helena to cut its staff in half are contributing to the problem, Rick Branzell, FWS enforcement officer for the area, responds, “The matters are still under investigation. I’ve got no further comment.”
Brian Peck, of Missoula’s Great Bear Foundation, says the recent poachings are a “disturbing trend.” He says grizzly poachings have always been a problem, and in the past have been the second-leading cause of grizzly bear deaths. But this year, poachings earned a dubious distinction as the leading cause of grizzly bear deaths in northwest Montana.
Peck isn’t sure whether recent budget cuts have directly impacted enforcement, but he does say that enforcement funding needs to move in the other direction.
“We need to have enough people for the job,” Peck says.
Peck also implicates weak poaching penalties as part of the problem.
“Penalties are little more than a kiss on the wrist,” he says. “They don’t even come up to the ‘slap on the wrist’ level.”
In order to curb poaching, Peck says, punishments need to be “fair, firm and consistent,” and there ought to be “a reasonable expectation that those who break the law will be caught.”
In the meantime, it seems poachers in northwest Montana have little to fear. No one has been charged in the deaths of any of the 21 grizzlies in the last two years.