Mike McElderry wasn't holding out much hope of discovering why a 3-year-old trumpeter swan was floating dead on the Lower Flathead River near Buffalo Bridge. The call came in to game wardens with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes late on Jan. 21, 2014, and they arrived to find the bird's mate still hanging around the area distraught. A large hole in the dead swan told McElderry the bird had been illegally shot, most likely by a high-powered rifle. But aside from a few spent shells and a description supplied by the callers who saw a truck speeding away from the scene, the tribal fish and game investigator found little evidence to go on.
"It was really late, in the wintertime, cold," McElderry recalls. "By the time I got down there, what're you going to do? You've got a dead swan. I thought, 'This is just one of those things and nothing's going to happen.'"
By the time news hit the local papers a few weeks later, people across the Flathead Indian Reservation were outraged. Trumpeter swans were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century and became so rare that the species was briefly considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act. CSKT approved a reintroduction program on the reservation in 1996, eventually teaming up with other agencies and nonprofits to gradually rebuild the Flathead Valley's trumpeter swan population. The loss of even one swan was enough to rile wardens, biologists and the general public. As CSKT Chief Game Warden Pablo Espinoza puts it, "Everybody knows that grizzly bears are protected, but this swan, it's a pretty important bird."
McElderry wasn't the only one working the case. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Game Warden Ron Howell had returned to the area about a year earlier after stints in several other FWP regions throughout the state, and the two quickly established a joint partnership on poaching investigations in and around the reservation. After the tribal government's communications department put out a press release asking for leads in the swan shooting, an anonymous caller contacted the state's Tip-MONT hotline claiming to know someone who knew the perpetrators. Howell spoke with the caller. Then he and McElderry interviewed the alleged shooter and his friend, both non-tribal members.
"Sure enough," McElderry says, "they fessed up."
Leroy Charles appeared in tribal court that April on several charges including taking a species closed to hunting. He pleaded guilty and was fined $3,000, along with another $1,500 in restitution, which went to the tribe to cover costs of replacing the swan through reintroduction. Charles also lost his fishing and bird hunting privileges on all tribal lands in Montana for a period of five years.
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
According to FWP Warden Captain Lee Anderson in Kalispell, last year's trumpeter swan case has become "kind of the poster" for the level of cooperation now occurring in fish and game law enforcement around the Flathead reservation. State and tribal wardens have long worked in tandem to uphold various natural resource regulations thanks to several interagency agreements. But only since 2010—the year FWP and the tribes penned an agreement deputizing tribal wardens into the state's ex officio program—have those officers enjoyed the equal jurisdictional footing McElderry and others credit for the increased collaboration in regional wildlife law enforcement.
"When our folks who are violators see a state warden and a tribal warden working together with the same authority now," McElderry says, "it really packs a punch."
State law has for decades extended the title of "ex officio warden" to a host of officials. Sheriffs and deputies, U.S. Forest Service officers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, the executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters—the list of positions granted the powers to enforce state fish and game laws extends to individuals at nearly every level of government. Prior to 2009, however, there was at least one notable exclusion in the statute: tribal game wardens. And while the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had been working closely with other agencies since the early 1990s thanks to collaborative management agreements with FWP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Espinoza says limited jurisdiction proved no small inconvenience for his officers.
"If a non-member, a non-Indian, came on the reservation and, say, poached an elk, we would have to get ahold of [FWP] and request a state game warden come down and handle the investigation," he explains. "Well, sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn't because the state wardens are real busy and out of the area. There was kind of a void on the reservation as far as non-member illegal activity. We didn't have anything we could do. We couldn't cite them into tribal court. We weren't able to cite them in anywhere, really. It was a bad deal for us."
All that changed during the 2009 Montana Legislature with the introduction of House Bill 296, a measure seeking to add tribal fish and game wardens to the list of offices that qualify for state ex officio status. The bill garnered widespread support from tribes, the FWP administration and the Montana Department of Justice, which argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service's termination years earlier of its cross-deputization agreements with tribes across the country had left tribal game wardens "in legal limbo." The legislature approved the bill with little debate or opposition, and the state's existing management agreement with CSKT automatically made the tribal wardens candidates for the program.
- photo courtesy of Mike McElderry
- In January 2014, state and tribal game wardens in the Flathead were called to the scene of a poached trumpeter swan. Working together, the two agencies closed the case quickly, resulting in fines and restitution payments of $4,500.
"We can be as involved in a case as we want, or we can do the complete case ourselves," Espinoza says of the resulting enforcement atmosphere. "Our investigator [McElderry] has handled cases by himself and actually cited them into state court."
By way of example, Espinoza points to a cow elk poached in the Dayton area along Flathead Lake's west shore. The group included tribal members and non-tribal members and involved spotlighting, or the use of lights to distract big game and shoot them at night. McElderry was assisted on the scene by tribal police and Lake County sheriff's deputies, Espinoza says, but he took the lead on the investigation and cited those involved without aid from a state warden.
"That's the type of jurisdiction that we have, which is really a big deal," Espinoza says. "He wrote the tribal members into tribal court, wrote the non-members into state court. And that's a poached cow elk, so that's a pretty big deal."