Poaching Mr. Big: illegal moose harvests are posing problems for some wildlife managers. (Expeditions).
Actually, though, a surprising number of moose are poached every year, and in at least one area the practice is not only on the upswing, it's likely costing some hunters the opportunity to bag their own moose. Moose poaching, "is a phenomenon that's been on the increase the last 10 to 12 years in eastern Washington State," says Capt. Mike Whorton of wildlife enforcement for the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Spokane office. Whorton notes that a relative handful of moose were once poached in this four-county region of the state. Now, 10 to 20 poaching cases a year are the norm; four years ago, his office logged 32 cases. "And those are the ones we're able to verify," he adds.
Whorton credits this poaching increase partly to a general growth in the area's moose population. Poachers are also aided by the fact that moose aren't timid. "They'll just stand out there like a big barn and let you shoot them," Whorton says. Once the moose is down, though, a lot of poachers "get spooked off because they realize this animal's usually bigger than a horse, and it's going to be a lot of work to get it out." So they leave the animal where it was shot.
These killings likely reduce hunting opportunities, too, because in Washington, Whorton notes, "It's a once-in-a-lifetime draw for a moose tag." While moose numbers have grown, they're in no way comparable to deer or elk populations, "so any illegal killing of moose impacts our management and harvest strategies" negatively.
In 2002, 9,800 hunters sent in more than 31,000 Washington moose hunting applications, and only 94 tags were issued. If those odds weren't bad enough, none of 94 lucky ones will ever get the chance to apply for another tag--even if they struck out in the field.
Idaho doesn't see many moose poaching cases, but those found guilty of this particular crime can expect significant penalties, including jail time. Illegally killing a moose is a felony here. In 2002, Idaho judges sent at least four poachers to jail, one for up to four years. Fines may go up to $50,000, and a judge can also revoke a poacher's hunting privileges for his or her lifetime.
While Washington's penalties for the same crime are no slap on the wrist (including a $4,000 civil fine and a year in jail), it's clear the costs of moose poaching are definitely more severe in neighboring Idaho. Why? Well, explains Vicky Runnoe, a conservation education specialist with Idaho Fish and Game, moose hunting here is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience for residents and nonresidents alike. That puts moose in the state's "trophy species" category.
"Overall, the moose population's fairly small, too," Runnoe adds. Add all of the above together, "and poachers often do get the book really thrown at them."
Legal hunting seems to have actually cut down on poaching in New Hampshire. Nearly extinct by the mid-1880s, New Hampshire moose populations grew during the late 20th century as heavy forests returned to northern areas. According to Lt. Martin Garabedian of New Hampshire Fish and Game, the moose hunt was reinstated in 1988. Before that, in the 1980s, he says, "I'd get seven or eight [moose poaching] cases in a year in a single hunting zone." Now, he says, it's unusual to have that many cases statewide.
Expanded hunting opportunity doesn't necessarily mean fewer illegal moose killings, though. Consider the Prince George area of British Columbia. With strong numbers of moose, the region boasts all sorts of hunting. But could there actually be too many opportunities?
Murray Smith thinks it's possible. A conservation officer for the British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, Smith is based in Prince George in the central part of the province. In his district, the moose hunts include seasons for calves and cows. Hunters can also buy a moose tag good for a bull with two or more points per single antler, plus there's a lottery drawing for a tag allowing the harvest of any bull.
But all that opportunity, Smith thinks, leads to mistakes. Hunters miscount the number of points on bulls and shoot ones for which they don't actually have tags.
Others think an animal has a rack, shoot and find that they've killed a cow or calf. In many cases, the animal is then left lying. Smith says he has 30 to 50 of these killings reported annually.
"For every one that gets reported, we believe there's at least one more that isn't reported, and probably two," he adds.
Many do call a conservation officer and admit illegally killing a moose. "In that case, I don't think we'd call those people poachers," Smith says. "They just made a mistake."
Even in the worst case, these hunters receive fines of $100 to $200 Canadian. Smith says most illegal moose killings in his district fall into the "mistaken identity" category, and he sympathizes with people who take the wrong shot.
"If we had an 'any-bull' season," Smith notes, "we wouldn't have most of these cases."