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Conservation News: Predators, Poaching, And Trail Cameras

Researchers have determined that increased mountain lion harvest improves elk calf survival.

Conservation News: Predators, Poaching, And Trail Cameras

(Photo by Vic Schendel)

Montana has been a hotbed of controversy on elk predation by wolves. True, there was low elk recruitment in 2009 in the Bitterroot River watershed south of Missoula, where wolves existed in good numbers.

Starting in 2011, researchers in the area identified the predators that killed elk calves, and determined that mountain lions had a much greater impact on calf survival than black bears or wolves. Their data also showed that calf survival was a key factor relative to overall population numbers in that area. In 2012, the state increased lion harvest by 30 percent, and that lowered cat numbers by that amount by 2016. Adjacent areas that had not liberalized cat hunting showed no increase in cat numbers.

The key finding was that when lion harvest was liberalized, calf survival showed a steady yearly increase. While habitat factors such as logging and wildfires probably affected availability of elk forage, the researchers felt that the increase in lion harvest had the biggest impact on elk numbers because of increased calf survival. Certain groups will probably question these findings, and further research continues.

Missouri Plans First Bear Hunt

Because bear numbers are expected to double in Missouri in less than 10 years, the Conservation Commission approved a first plan for a bear hunt. That plan would allow Missouri residents to hunt bears in the southern part of the state. The Department of Conservation is working on draft recommendations on permit numbers and total yearly harvest objectives. Population estimates are between 540 and 840, and with the expected doubling, a small harvest is being planned, with no timetable yet established.

Wolf Reintroduction In Colorado

In Colorado, a ballot referendum to introduce wolves into the western part of the state passed by a 50.9-percent vote. This was a hotly debated issue, and it was no surprise that most of the positive votes came from the larger cities (Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, etc.) in the eastern part of the state, while those living in the western part of Colorado, where the wolves will be released, voted against the referendum. Regardless of which side of wildlife-referendum issues you sit on, the votes in states always favor urban citizens. I hesitated to use the word “always” here, but I cannot think of any wildlife-based referendum in the past 35 years that was not decided by urban citizens.

A Much-Needed Poaching Study

We all know that poaching exists in every state in the country. From a legal hunter’s perspective, it seems that relatively few poachers are caught, and once in the court system, consistency and amounts of fines and punishment are lacking.

There are many unanswered questions about poaching. How much poaching is done? What motivates people to poach? Does family culture play a big role? Or are those involved in other criminal activities the ones who also poach? How big a role does economic gain play in poaching? Finally, is the lack of grocery money due to unemployment a major contributor to poaching?

My guess is that many of these questions overlap relative to motivations to poach. Poor role models may lead teenagers to go out with friends and spotlight and shoot deer just for fun. Alcohol and/or drugs may be involved. I doubt that many poach deer for meat, although once arrested, a surprising number of poachers claim that as their reason for breaking the law. If food is the issue, there are lots of ways to secure deer legally, either via hunting or through communication with conservation officers looking for places to give away meat they’ve confiscated.

The Boone and Crockett Club, along with the Wildlife Management Institute, is starting a long-term “Poach and Pay” anti-poaching program. They will work with state wildlife agencies, legislators, and state judiciaries to “improve the detection, conviction, and punishment of poachers.”

Catching poachers is one thing; convicting and making them pay is quite another. For example, in my home state of West Virginia, we have counties where the magistrates take poaching seriously and convict at rather high rates. But, we also have counties where the exact opposite occurs: Magistrates do not view the illegal killing of wildlife as anything serious, and either don’t convict, or if they do, the fines are small. Conservation officers work hard, but in some counties the magistrates do not do their job. It’s amazing that the officers working those counties maintain their incentive to continue making arrests. Hopefully, this new study can improve that situation, not only in West Virginia, but in other states as well.

Many states have restitution programs, where fines are imposed to pay for the wildlife killed. Some states have restitution fines based on antler size: The bigger the buck, the bigger the fines. However, there is no standard from state to state. And again, local legal jurisdiction varies on requiring payment of restitution.

This new poaching program will evaluate detection rates and the impacts of poaching on wildlife. It will attempt to come up with deterrents that will influence poachers and assess the barriers to prosecuting wildlife crimes. It’s a study that’s long overdue, and it could lead to a legal and cultural society that does not accept poaching.


Arizona Considers Regulating Trail Cameras

In December 2020, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) voted to begin the process of making it illegal to use trail cameras in the taking of wildlife. The proposed language reads: “A person shall not use a trail camera, or images from a trail camera, for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife, or locating wildlife for the purpose of taking or aiding in the take of wildlife.” The concern was stimulated by public view of Fair Chase. There are other issues here. For example, when a hunter places a camera near water or anywhere, does that create conflict with other hunters using that area?

Could use of cameras grow to a point where someone starts a business of selling camera photos of animals, along with the location, to perspective hunters? Seems far-fetched, but maybe not. Anyway, the AGFC will take public comments and vote on the proposed rule at their March 2021 meeting, and I’ll update you on how that goes.

If you have questions about topics covered in this column or on any wildlife-management issues or wildlife species, contact Dr. Dave at

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