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Assessing the 'Dark Figure' of Poaching in America

The Boone and Crockett Club aims to quantify wildlife crimes—and their hidden costs—through a new program.

Assessing the 'Dark Figure' of Poaching in America

Poachers who left five elk for dead were recently sentenced in Oregon. Read more here (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Go ahead, ask your hunting buddy. What percentage of poachers in America are caught and convicted? Half? A quarter? Not even close.

Research sponsored by the Boone and Crockett Club and its partners indicates that the number is incredibly, depressingly much lower. Based on early studies of a decade of wildlife crime citations and court data from Kentucky, researchers estimate that fewer than 3 percent of poachers in the Bluegrass State are caught and convicted. That's probably not an outlier; poaching rates in other states are distressingly similar, based on earlier studies that looked at illicit wildlife exploitation.

Poaching is not only a theft of animals and opportunities from legal hunters, but it turns out there’s a tremendous monetary cost, too. Using only the minimum penalties assessed for fines and restitution, researchers estimated the annual fiscal consequences for all detected fish and wildlife violations in Kentucky at about $1.1 million. By estimating the "dark figure" of undetected wildlife crimes at about 98 percent, the researchers calculate that the real cost of wildlife violations in Kentucky is more than $43 million.

"That's about half the annual operating budget for Kentucky's wildlife agency," says Jonathan Gassett, one of the researchers for the Boone and Crockett Club's Poach and Pay initiative and former director of Kentucky's Fish and Wildlife Department. "Imagine the wildlife habitat and access initiatives a state agency could deliver if it could recoup that lost revenue, or the number of game wardens they could put in the field to reduce poaching."


Currently, Gassett and co-researcher (and spouse) Dr. Kristie Blevins are in the data-collection stage of their multi-year research, parsing some 80,000 surveys of hunters, conservation officers and landowners across eight different states and regions that aim to estimate the prevalence of poaching across America. Next stages are interviews with convicted poachers to get a handle on motivation, followed by studies of state judicial systems that could lead to reforms in how poaching cases are adjudicated in the courts.

As the oldest conservation organization in America and champion of ethical hunting, the Boone and Crockett Club has a keen interest in the equitable distribution of and access to the public’s wildlife, says Tony Schoonen. Chief executive officer of the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and other early leaders of America's wildlife conservation movement, Schoonen says the club has long been active in anti-poaching initiatives, but the outlines of the Poach and Pay program were formed and developed during the Cecil the Lion controversy.

"During Cecil, we saw poaching and hunting being described interchangeably by the international media," says Schoonen. "We were—and are—worried about the image of hunting. We do not want to see hunters and poachers being used in the same sentence."


Neither Schoonen nor Gassett are prepared to say that poaching is more or less prevalent now than in past generations. But Poach and Pay, which is funded in part from a grant from the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, is designed to raise awareness of illicit activity, to quantify the problem and to ensure that penalties match the crime.

"There are three factors associated with whether somebody decides to commit a crime," says Gassett. "The certainty of being caught, the penalty if they are caught and convicted, and the speed of prosecution. Right now we don’t know what the level [of poaching] is, just that it’s extremely high. But if we can get it down to even 20 percent—you’re going to get caught every fifth time you poach—then we could cut out a lot of what I’d call opportunistic poaching."




Part of that crackdown might be putting more conservation officers in the field. Or ensuring that judges take poaching more seriously. Or increasing penalties for poaching. All those might be prescriptions produced by Poach and Pay and offered to state agencies and legislatures, says Schoonen. What's harder to quantify is why poachers poach. Blevins is tackling that end of the equation through a series of interviews with convicted poachers.</

"We think there are five primary motivations," says Gassett. "People poach opportunistically; they don't intend to, but the opportunity presents itself and they make bad choices. Some people poach for subsistence, to feed their families. Others poach for trophies. Some poach to feed their egos. And others poach for financial gain, selling what they kill."

If law enforcers can reduce those motivations, they may be able to stop some poachers before they commit a wildlife crime. Other actions might be working with judges and justices of the peace to ensure poachers face the full extent of the law. Others are increasing fines to reflect the theft of a valuable public resource.

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"In many jurisdictions, poaching is considered a victimless crime," says Gassett. "Judges have such full dockets of crimes with higher priorities that often poaching is considered minor in comparison. But if we can make the case that the real victim of poaching isn’t the animals that are poached but rather the people of the state, hunters whose opportunity has been stolen from them, and the revenue that’s not going to the state agency, then I think we can elevate the seriousness of poaching and get judges to take cases more seriously."

For Schoonen, raising awareness of poaching and working to reduce its prevalence are squarely in line with the Boone and Crockett Club’s mission.

"This falls under our mission of advocacy," says Schoonen. "We are committed to advocating for ethical standards of sportsmanship. Poaching, by its definition, is the antithesis of sportsmanship."

SCI Appeals National Wildlife Refuge Decision

The organization seeks to maintain expanded hunting opportunities.

In April, Safari Club International (SCI) joined with the National Rifle Association, Sportsmen's Alliance Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to appeal a decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denying the pro-hunting organizations' efforts to intervene and defend the expansion of hunting opportunities on federal lands. The four groups stress that the court’s decision was made in error.

In Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the plaintiff challenged a 2020 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulation that expanded hunting and fishing opportunities on almost 100 national wildlife refuges. SCI notes the plaintiff wrongly asserts that expanded hunting and fishing threatens species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as grizzly bears and whooping cranes. The Center for Biological Diversity also challenges the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on national wildlife refuges in the case. The pro-hunting organizations seek to defend the 2020 regulation, which they point out is consistent with the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act’s directive to prioritize hunting and fishing on refuges.

In the appeal, the hunter-advocacy organizations will demonstrate that the district court erred in ruling that they do not have a legal interest in maintaining a rule that expanded hunting access. "The district court’s ruling ignores the clear interest of SCI members who want to take advantage of expanded hunting on these federal lands," said SCI CEO W. Laird Hamberlin. "Hunters have a right to defend their interests in the federal judiciary on an issue that will directly affect thousands of sportsmen and -women across the country."

SCI is committed to a "No-Net-Loss" policy, which ensures that the amount of federal land for hunting and fishing stays constant or increases, but is not diminished. To sign the organization’s No-Net-Loss petition, visit safariclub.org. — Adam Heggenstaller

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