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Poaching by the numbers

How often do hunting violations actually get prosecuted?

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On Nov. 1, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks finally closed the book on yet another major poaching investigation in western Montana. The last of nine men connected to the illegal shooting of at least 15 deer and one cow elk since 2013 was sentenced in Flathead County Justice Court, bringing the fines and restitution secured in the case to $16,425. Charges against the group ranged from waste of game to hunting with artificial light. According to an agency announcement, most of the poachers were high school students, and they lost a combined 47 years of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges as punishment.
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In the same announcement, FWP Warden Captain Lee Anderson said he hoped the conclusion of the two-year investigation would help deter would-be scofflaws. But the 2016 hunting season has already provided fish and game wardens statewide with new cases to solve. Three mule deer were shot and left unharvested near Skalkaho Road east of Hamilton in the first weeks of November. A bull moose was wasted northwest of Superior in early October. The head and hindquarters were taken from a poached moose on Crane Mountain near Bigfork several weeks later.

Ron Jendro, FWP’s assistant chief of enforcement in Helena, thinks it’s unlikely that the wasted carcasses discovered this season will lead to investigations as intense as the one concluded in the Flathead last month. Poaching-wise, he says, 2016 is shaping up to be “pretty similar” to years past. Each of the agency’s seven regions typically winds up with one major case—involving clear intent to break the law—annually. “Every year, I suppose, we’re getting some of those big cases where we’re taking down multiple individuals or they’re killing multiple animals or they’re hunting without landowner permission,” Jendro adds. “I know this fall here in Helena they had a guy that was on suspension and an individual watched him shoot an elk.”

Whether this year’s major cases will lead to prosecution is a foggier question. FWP doesn’t track statistics on how often its investigations result in convictions, or how often such cases are dismissed. But this fall the agency did supply the Indy with 10 years worth of fish and game citation records, and we crunched the data ourselves as the hunting season wound to a close.

Of the 4,479 tickets issued by FWP personnel in Missoula County over the past decade—tickets that included fishing, boating, trapping and recreation violations—797 were designated as hunting violations. Just 4 percent of those were dismissed in court, well below the 11 percent dismissal average statewide. Flathead County, where 732 of the 3,743 citations written over the same time period were for hunting violations, had the region’s highest dismissal rate at 39.7 percent. Lake County was second: Of 840 citations, 167 were for hunting, and 28.4 percent of those were dismissed. Other dismissal rates in regions 1 and 2 (comprising western Montana) ranged from 6 to 11 percent.

Though the figures seem to indicate pockets of western Montana where hunting violations are less likely to result in convictions, Jendro points out that some dismissals are bundled with plea bargains that include payment of fines and surrender of hunting and fishing privileges. Other times, he says, county prosecutors may simply be too overwhelmed with other work to tackle the “big binders” of evidence that wardens drop on their desks.

Even when cases are prosecuted, the outcomes aren’t always as headline-grabbing as the recent Flathead sentencing, or the lifetime hunting, fishing and trapping ban handed down by a district court judge in Ravalli County last year as part of a massive bear-poaching investigation. But then, after 23 years with FWP, Jendro is reluctant to condemn every lawbreaker equally.

“We understand when guys make a mistake. Mistakes happen, whether it’s shooting a spike [buck] or whatever,” he says. “But to then compound that mistake by failing to turn themselves in and just letting the game go to waste, that’s what frustrates me.”

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Poaching by the numbers - How often do hunting violations actually get prosecuted?"

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