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Hunting, conservation groups donate to anti-poaching cause
By DARYL GADBOW of the Missoulian

Christmas came early for state game wardens in western Montana this year.

And that heralds bad tidings for poachers.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' law enforcement division recently received some major donations from four western Montana conservation and sportsmen's organizations.

Missoula's Five Valleys Chapter of Safari Club International donated $4,000 to FWP to purchase four wildlife decoys for poaching sting operations. FWP Region 1 in northwestern Montana and Region 2 in west-central Montana both were able to buy one deer and one elk decoy. Safari Club International also contributed $2,000 for the decoy purchases.

The local Safari Club chapter also gave FWP a $6,000 donation to purchase a surveillance camera.

The Western Montana Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation also donated $1,800 to FWP for a mule deer decoy, as well as funds for increased game warden patrols.

Brown Bear Resources of Missoula, an organization dedicated to conservation of grizzly bears, donated $2,000 to FWP for a grizzly bear decoy.

And the Ravalli County Fish and Game Association donated $500 to the department to help with a decoy purchase.

"Fish, Wildlife and Parks, although it may be argued is money-fat because it generates its own funds through license sales, has a tight a budget like everywhere else," said FWP Warden Capt. Jeff Darrah of Missoula. "And the cost of doing business is always going up for us.

"Most of the money allocated for the law enforcement division goes for gas and a truck and patrol time," he added. "Things like equipment needs get cut - things like boats, snowmobiles and surveillance cameras. Those are tools we really want to have to catch wildlife violators. Decoys are a prime example. They're fairly expensive, from $1,000 to $3,000. That's essentially one-third of a game warden's budget to operate for a full year. And they've been one of the most effective tools to prevent illegal hunting."

Wildlife decoys have a limited life expectancy, according to Darrah, because they tend to get shot. And their sensitive robotic circuitry wears out.

So Darrah finds himself going to sportsmen's groups, hat in hand, asking for help.

"I can say," Darrah said, "that throughout my career, the large majority of sportsmen and sportsmen's organizations have been willing to give to help everything from biological studies of wildlife to enforcement. Without that type of help, a lot of equipment we need, we wouldn't have."

The department's new high-tech surveillance camera purchased with funds donated by Safari Club will be especially helpful for FWP's law enforcement capability, according to Darrah.

The camera will be used by wardens to film violations such as hunting behind road closures, hunting deer and bear over bait, and other cases, he said.

"We used to have to borrow a surveillance camera from the Forest Service," Darrah said.

"Fish, Wildlife and Parks enforcement people have a difficult job in Montana," said Russ Smith, president of the Five Valleys Chapter of Safari Club International. "Their numbers are few and the real estate they need to cover is big. With current economic trends, they don't always have funding to provide support in the way of getting the equipment they need to do the job. So the members of Safari Club in Missoula wanted to assist them in this portion of their job."

In the past year, the local Safari Club group has also donated money to fund the following projects to help wildlife and protect hunting rights in Montana:

- $500 toward the legal fight to restore access to federal land near Kalispell.

- $1,000 for an aerial survey of elk herds in the Elkhorn Mountains.

- $4,000 to help fund a graduate student to monitor mountain goats on Red Mountain during the coming summer. The group funded the transplant of the goats to the area in 2001.

- $2,000 to help fund the distribution of a manual prepared by the Living with Wildlife Foundation.

"As a law enforcement officer, it gives you a great feeling to have these groups support us like this," said Darrah. "It shows that sportsmen do more than just buy licenses. They're dedicated to the resources. More so than the equipment they gave us, I appreciate their support for what we do."

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