In the month and a half since Gov. Judy Martz and the Legislature trimmed $57 million from the state’s budget, distressing repercussions have surfaced not only for the health and safety of Montanans, but for their wildlife as well. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has lost several positions that will make its difficult job of protecting wildlife even harder.
With a required 5 percent vacancy savings and hiring freeze, the number of FWP game wardens has dropped from 68 to 62. Although the loss of six positions may not seem like a massive shortage, leaving even a handful of game warden positions vacant results in some 10,000 square miles of unpatrolled land.
“There’s no two ways about it,” says FWP Missoula Game Warden Captain Jeff Darrah. “When we have a guy quit or retire we have to leave warden districts vacant, and that has impact when we have to keep an area without wildlife enforcement for sometimes six or seven months.”
With such large jurisdictions, game wardens primarily depend on tips from conscientious citizens to catch poachers, so they need to be visible and active members of communities. When a position remains empty, the people in the community—poachers included—know it.
“As we have vacancies open up, well, there’s no secret there when it happens,” says FWP program manager of enforcement Mark Earnhardt.
Every year there are approximately 1,000 hunting violations in Montana, although Earnhardt doesn’t know how many of those are acts of deliberate poaching, nor can he estimate how many violations go unreported.
Some conservation groups are concerned that fewer game wardens will mean fewer poacher prosecutions. Darrah has heard reports that FWP only catches between 5 and 10 percent of poachers. He believes his agency does a better job than that, but admits they “only catch a small percentage of what’s going on.”
Greg Price of the Great Bear Foundation knows of bear poaching incidents that would have remained undiscovered if his group hadn’t wandered across a poachers’ trap in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
“Mine is just one example of what we found, but I think that from there you can extrapolate that there is quite a bit more going on,” says Price. “In two years of field seasons I have yet to run into anybody in a uniform, and we spend weeks at a time out there. If people can ride around on motorcycles and not get caught, I’m sure they can shoot something and not get caught.”