SPOKANE -- Money, thrill kills, trophy mounts and extra meat are driving wildlife poachers and illegal traders into the Inland Northwest's forests and fields, say Washington state Fish and Wildlife officials.
The trend is underscored by the recent felony arrest of Jason Yon, owner of Jax Foods in Spokane. Undercover state fish and game officers charged Yon with buying four black bear gallbladders to resell them. "Galls" are prized in Asia for their medicinal properties.
It's perfectly legal to hunt black bear in Washington and Idaho. However, Washington, unlike Idaho, forbids purchase or resale of bear parts. That includes bear claws, teeth, skulls and galls, said Officer Lenny Hahn, with the Spokane-based division of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. But no one knows how prevalent poaching is, he said.
"It's hard to catch. We're so limited on officers that it's unreal. We're down to 90 or 100 field officers for the whole state. And it's getting harder and harder to find good, qualified (job) applicants," he said.
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"It takes a lot of dedication to do this job," Hahn added. And the hours get particularly long during fall hunting season.
"This time of year, we start receiving complaints of trespassing, spotlighting (illuminating game at night), wasting an animal, shooting illegal animals, (roaming) road hunters and party hunting," or taking animals under someone else's permit, he said.
Tony Muse, a wildlife biologist and son of a state fisheries biologist, said he grew up hearing game wardens' battle tales.
He hunts in the Colville National Forest. Poaching is so prevalent there, he said, legal hunters know to watch their backs lest they take a bullet intended for prey.
Given the number of grievances and vast expanses of land to patrol, the best game wardens can do is concentrate on the most egregious violators, Muse said.
In other words, "major poaching rings nailing very big (trophy) animals. A lot of times, they are guiding out-of-state people. And the best part is, the hunters have no idea (they're hunting illegally) until they get into the taxidermist" and learn their take doesn't have necessary permits.
State and federals laws require harvested game be tagged and registered with regulatory agencies.
Pat Flach, a veteran employee of Eidnes Furs Inc., a nationally known St. Maries, Idaho, company that deals in animal parts, said poachers know not to cross the company's threshold.
The 35-year-old company does a huge mail order business in legally harvested animal skins, skulls, antlers, bones, claws, teeth, feathers, bear rugs and furs. All are taken in accordance with state and federal regulations, Flach said.
He said word is out that Eidnes does only strict, above-board dealings. "Since the day I started, if something came in and they didn't have the paperwork or something isn't quite right, we won't take it."
However, Idaho's wildlife laws are considerably more relaxed than Washington's, he explained. In Idaho, it's OK to buy and sell bear galls for personal use, he said.
But the gall market fell "off the face of the earth" about 10 years ago, he said. Folks in the industry joke that the slump in sales of galls, thought by some to be aphrodisiacs, is due to Viagra's popularity.
More likely, he said, is that young Asians don't embrace galls' efficacy or are simply buying from other suppliers.
Besides, poaching doesn't pay all that much. Rarely are hides, antlers and trophy mounts taken by hunters unblemished enough to bring big bucks, Flach said.
"Thousands of times I've heard people say: 'Doctors, dentists and lawyers would pay big money for this or that.' That hasn't been the case for us. It's a myth," he said.