Game wardens say poaching on increase, fueled by trophy seekers

Game wardens say poaching on increase, fueled by trophy seekers

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KALISPELL – The poacher who pulled the trigger on Maximus – one of Montana’s greatest grizzlies – left the big bear to waste.

So did the poacher who shot two wolves up near Glacier National Park. And the poacher who killed the big bull elk north of Columbia Falls. And the poacher who dropped the trophy bull moose down along the Jefferson.

Didn’t take the claws, or the skulls, or the antlers, or the meat. Just left them to rot.

“It’s sad,” said Mike Martin, game warden captain with the state Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks. “We’re seeing more and more people going after the biggest and the best. It’s driven by ego – wanting to kill the trophy.”

Maximus was a trophy, a behemoth bear towering 7 1/2 feet and tipping the scales at more than 800 pounds. He wasn’t a troublemaker, wasn’t killing cattle or raiding cabins. He was, in the words of the local bear biologist, just “a big, beautiful, wild bear.”

On Tuesday, state and federal officials set the reward in the case at $11,000, a $3,000 increase over the previous offering. They hardly had the posters printed when new donations pushed it closer to $11,800.

But will it prove enough to buy an answer to the mystery of Maximus?

“I hope so,” Martin said.

Maximus ranged on the Rocky Mountain Front, where at least two other grizzly bears were poached this fall. But in those cases, the shooter took home the claws as a trophy.

Poachers usually keep a trophy – the claws or the antlers or sometimes the whole head – or else they take the meat. Generally, Martin said, poachers want something.

Occasionally, game wardens find themselves tracking a “thrill killer,” a poacher who shoots just to shoot, “but that’s not very common,” he said.

It’s hard to say what motivated the poachers who shot this year’s trophies, then left them to waste. Perhaps they were thrill killers. Perhaps they were scared off before they could claim their prize. Perhaps they intended to come back later, but officials arrived first. Perhaps, as one game warden speculated, they were born in an age of video game violence, in which shooting to shoot is as easy as pulling a trigger.

Martin doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that last bit of speculation, but he does believe television hunting programs are driving the increase in trophy poaching. The shows, he said, “spur a desire to kill the big one. We’ve seen a real increase, especially in the last few years, an increase in trophy poaching and commercial poaching, too.”

That’s organized and planned poaching – people who are systematic, sophisticated and willing to pay big bucks for trophies.

But at the same time, said Warden Sgt. John Obst, “more hunters are absolutely stepping up to help us out. They’re tired of poachers and people without ethics giving hunting a bad name.”

And so they call in tips – “we rely very heavily on tips in these cases,” Obst said. “Sometimes, they just call. Sometimes, they respond to a reward.”

That’s what Martin is counting on.

Maximus was found on Aug. 12 on a ranch near Dupuyer. Since then, local ranchers have joined state and federal wildlife agencies and nonprofits to cobble together the $11,000 reward.

“That was a phenomenal bear,” Martin said, “and there’s been lots and lots of interest in this case.”

Just as there is in the case of the bull elk, and the bull moose, and the wolves.

“It’s really troubling,” Obst said. “They’re willing to take all the risk to shoot the animal, but then they don’t follow through. You have to wonder what’s going on inside their heads.”

A Columbia Falls man was arrested, eventually, for poaching the wolves, “and that was possible because of tips and information from the public,” Obst said. “That’s what we need, is for people to step up and tell us what they know, because every animal poached represents one less opportunity for real hunters, and for everyone, really, who values Montana’s wildlife.”

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com.

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