Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers add K-9 unit www.privateofficer.com
TWIN FALLS ID April 15 2012 Sandra Benge sat on a lawn chair beside Dierkes Lake when Jim Stirling approached her.
“How’s the fishing?” asked Stirling, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game law enforcement officer.
“I just got here,” Benge replied. She said she comes to the lake as often as weather permits and expected to catch fish on this sunny Saturday in April.
“My husband tells me, ‘The fish see you more than Ido,’” she joked.
Stirling was amiable as they talked, but the wildlife official was on business. He chuckled — and asked to see her fishing license.
Benge’s license was current, but not everyone is as careful. Fishing without a license is a misdemeanor, Stirling said, as are most other wildlife violations.
To combat poaching — a term used by the public but rarely by Fish and Game, which instead refers to “wildlife violations” — the department last year kicked off a five-year pilot program involving Stirling and a black Lab named Pepper.
It’s a new tool Fish and Game uses to encourage conservation, discourage wildlife violations and catch those who break the law. But an even more effective tool is the law-abiding public.
For hundreds of years, people hunted and fished without wildlife laws. When they got hungry, going afield to spear a fish or kill a deer was a logical solution.
“That’s just the way people lived,” said Gary Hompland, a conservation officer with Fish and Game. “There was no season, no method of take or bag limits. When families’ food supplies got down they went out and killed a game animal.”
“That whole philosophy is still alive and well in some communities,” he said.
Especially in small, rural communities, Hompland said, some people believe it is their right to feed off the land without restrictions. Others just have no respect for the law or conservation.
But in some places the old attitude is changing.
“That culture isn’t accepted by a lot of younger people, newer people moving into the area,” he said.
Some hunters and anglers don’t like it when their peers break the law.
“It’s a matter of ethics,” said bird hunter and fisherman Ben Collins. “There’s two kinds of poachers: people who poach out-season and those that take more than their limit. I don’t like either one.”
Stirling compares the range of wildlife crimes to other offenses: Speeding or running a red light, for instance, doesn’t have the impact of a more serious crime such as murder — unless speeding causes an accident leading to someone’s death. Keeping more than your legal share of trout might not have the same impact as taking an elk out of season, he said, but it’s still wrong. And if everyone did it, it could have a serious effect on fishing opportunities.
The number of violations rises during a dour economy, Hompland said.
“People are out of work,” he said. “They can’t afford to buy food, which is weird, because you’d think they wouldn’t be able to buy fuel either. But some things, like food, you have to have.”
The most common wildlife violation is rule compliance: fishing without a license, using two poles when the angler should be using only one, or not properly validating a deer tag, Stirling said. Sometimes it’s carelessness or laziness on the part of the perpetrator, he said. Other times, it’s blatant disregard for the law.
It was a good first year with the K-9 unit, Stirling said, because Pepper helped uncover evidence on several violations. The most remarkable: Searching in the dark, Pepper found a shotgun and spent shells that had been dumped in a cornfield by juveniles hunting ducks out of season.
“We did that within a matter of 20 minutes,” Stirling said. “It was much more efficient utilizing the dog.”
Pepper is the only dog in the K-9 unit, a program funded by grants from Shikar Safari in Boise, the Idaho Conservation Officers Association and private donations. Initial training happened in Indiana, where the Indiana Department of Natural Resources paid for Pepper’s training.
If the K-9 program is successful over the course of the five years, it will continue and even expand into other regions, Stirling said. If not, it likely will go away.
Stirling takes Pepper with him into the field to sniff out evidence and to train, and to school classrooms where Stirling discusses conservation issues with students and teachers. Everyone likes the friendly black Lab, he said.
Hompland said Pepper also helps Search and Rescue find lost hunters and trains with other law enforcement K-9 units.
“We had a good year learning this new tool that we have,” Stirling said.
Stirling wants to keep the K-9 program and said there seems to be significant interest from local sportsmen’s groups and individuals. He’s garnered more than $20,000 through fundraising and donations since the program started.
Currently, the department has about $12,600 budgeted for the remainder of the pilot program — expenses include equipment and vet checks — and is looking for more money to get it through the next four years.
“At this point, we’re very proud of it,” Hompland said, adding that the donations give the agency a window to make the program self-sustaining.
Pepper, who sniffed out hidden fish and a handgun during training at Dierkes Lake onSaturday, seems to like it, too.
“He’s so eager to please,” Stirling said.
Pepper, however, is not the ultimate poaching solution. One of the most effective tools Fish and Game uses to catch violators doesn’t have a dog’s nose: It’s you.
“What people tell us is huge,” Hompland said. “We depend on the public so much.”
When you’re in the field and notice anything suspicious or see something you know is not right, he said, report it as soon as possible to Fish and Game or call the Citizens AgainstPoaching toll-free number.
One person might hear off-season gunshots in the woods; another person might see neighbor Bill coming down the mountain. It might not be Bill who did the shooting, Hompland said, but maybe Bill saw someone who did. Pieces of reported information can be put together to form a clearer picture of what might have happened.
“The public’s help is crucial,” Hompland said.