TWIN FALLS • When a person commits a crime against another, someone calls police. When a home is burglarized, an alarm alerts the authorities.
But when a trophy bull elk is harvested out of season or a yearling moose is shot from a roadway, who reports it?
“We don’t have anybody to report to us when something bad happens to them,” said Gary Hompland, regional conservation officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Welcome to the world of fish and wildlife crimes, where the victims are rarely human yet the crimes affect every Idahoan.
“They’re actually a crime against all the people of Idaho,” he said. “All the citizens of Idaho own these animals.”
And the best way to catch these criminals, Hompland said, is by word of mouth.
“We have a public, sportsman or non-sportsman, who are genuinely concerned about Idaho’s natural resources,” he said. “We rely on their eyes and ears when they’re out fishing, hunting or recreating.”
If something seems like it’s not right, Hompland said, the public should notify a Fish and Game officer.
Hard to Track
Officers have an idea of how bad the poaching problem is in south-central Idaho, but the statistics are nebulous.
Fish and Game does keep statistics for its citations, warnings and unsolved cases, Hompland said. But the number of reported violations are probably a fraction of what actually occur.
Everything from weather to animal populations, to the number of potential witnesses affects the number of reported violations, he said.
“Sometimes it’s just a reflection of not as many people in the field,” he said.
Hompland said one of the biggest reasons people violate Fish and Game laws is opportunity.
“If there’s not very many animals that opportunity is reduced and the number of reports we get drops,” he said.
Good Old Detective Work
When they do hear about violations, Hompland said Fish and Game officers use many of the same methods as traditional police.
“The forensic science is pretty much the same,” he said. “We can do ballistics, hair, blood, DNA, all of those things help but there’s nothing like good old detective work.”
In some cases, officers travel out of state to solve cases. In one case, officers traveled to Palouse, Wash., to find a man who allegedly poached a trophy bull elk in Twin Falls County — and on top of that, officers claim he bought an in-state license rather than one for non-residents. The case against Rodderick Q. Rosen is currently making its way through Twin Falls County 5th District Court, with a preliminary hearing scheduled for Oct. 26.
In another recent, still unsolved case, Fish and Game regional conservation educator Kelton Hatch said an acquaintance of his was out hunting and came upon an elk carcass near Tuana Gulch.
“We found it was an early harvested animal,” Hatch said.
And outside of the Magic Valley, Fish and Game officers are looking for help with a poached yearling bull moose in the Copper Basin area of the Big Lost River.
Tags for that trophy species are hard to get. But Hompland said those limits help with population goals, public safety and ensuring the hunt is fair for everyone, he said.
“There’s basically 100 years of history behind it,” he said.
‘You Either Did or Didn’t’
Once Fish and Game officers catch someone who has violated the law, Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said it’s not too difficult to prosecute poachers.
“When they catch them the proof isn’t that tough,” he said. “You either did or didn’t kill out of season.”
Loebs said his office doesn’t do much investigating on these cases since the evidence is already in the hands of Fish and Game officers.
Rather than treating the cases like violent crimes, Loebs said poaching is more akin to a theft case.
“The evidence has to come from what you find at the scene, statements by people, witnesses. If you look at it that way it makes sense,” he said.
Educating newcomers and young hunters has been the most effective tool so far in reducing the numbers of new poachers, Hompland said. Eventually, people’s attitudes change, but changing cultural beliefs is difficult.
“You’ve got an 11- or 12-year-old hunter education student who knows what’s right or wrong, but it’s hard for them to stand up to Uncle Bill who says, ‘This is the way we do this,’” Hompland said.