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What Motivates Poachers? A Montana Researcher Explains

Bull elk
Bull elk

Of the no less than eight cases of poaching Montana wildlife officials are currently investigating, some of the game animals were killed and left to rot where they fell. Others were found decapitated, but otherwise untouched.

One Montana educator has spent years researching poachers and has found they’re motivated by many different factors.

Montana State University-Billings sociology professor Steve Eliason has interviewed plenty of game wardens about poaching.

“As for the poachers themselves, what I’ve found is that most of them don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

According to Eliason, that’s because, “In the hunting community, the worst thing you can be is a poacher, and so a lot of people, even if they admit they’ve done something wrong, they don’t want to be referred to as a poacher, and it has a stigma in the hunting community."

Eliason, who also serves as chair of MSU-Billings’ Social Sciences and Cultural Studies Department, says he’s always been interested in hunting and fishing issues. His grad school dissertation focused on poaching.

Since then he’s written extensively on the subject, including an article that appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Deviant Behavior.

“Well, deviancy refers to the violation of a norm, a social norm, and so poaching behavior is certainly a type of deviant behavior,” Eliason says.

And it’s a huge problem in Montana. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, nearly 4,000 citations were written in the state for big game poaching between 2000 and 2009. FWP also says poaching is on the rise.

Eliason says there are only about 80 game wardens who are sworn to keep watch over the wildlife in this sparsely populated, yet fourth-largest, state in the union. And poaching has changed a lot over the past three decades,

“Game wardens, some of ‘em who had been there for over 15 or 20 years, would say that when they first started they would get to the site of the poaching incident and all that would be left is a gut pile."

Now, according to Eliason, investigating game wardens are more likely to find a headless carcass, or one that’s only missing its antlers.

“And so a lot of people are doing it now for trophy reasons, as opposed to getting the meat, and for food and for consumption purposes,” he says.

Eliason suggested the same mainstream hunting culture which despises and stigmatizes poachers simultaneously places a lot of emphasis on trophy animals.

“That makes it so that some individuals are willing to bend the rules, break the law and to do basically anything they need to do to get a huge animal, or an animal with huge antlers, to impress other people. It becomes a status type of thing."

So, is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ poacher?

Not really. Professor Eliason said they cut across all social and economic classes. Some love to crow about their illegal kills, while others are reclusive and never make a peep. That said, poachers do tend to share a few commonalities.

“By far, most of them are men; teenagers, in their 20s,” he says.

“And then, as people start to get older – in criminology, it’s what we call the ‘aging out’ phenomenon. Most crimes are committed by younger people. As people get older and as they become more mature and as they get married and have families and jobs and other responsibilities, then people tend to age out of crime.”

Some never age out of their desire to illegally kill game. Eliason recounts a conversation with a game warden who was preparing to present a rack of antlers as evidence in court.

“The individual who poached them was a 72-year-old-man. He had poached a nice mule deer buck on private property after the hunting season ended. He [the warden] said that that individual felt he would never get a trophy deer in his lifetime, and so he poached it. Yeah, even older individuals can be poachers also."

The best way to push back against Montana poachers? According to Eliason, if you know something or see something that looks suspicious, immediately report it to authorities.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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