Wildlife poaching has become so pervasive and difficult to combat it threatens to ruin animal populations around the American West and the world, a top law officer says.
"At no time in my career have I seen poaching and illicit trade in wildlife as bad as it is today," said Terry Grosz, law enforcement chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rocky Mountain Region, which includes both Wyoming and Montana."Give us the same odds Custer had, we'll take them today," Grosz told an audience at the Wyoming Wildlife Federation's annual conference in Jackson over the weekend. "We're outnumbered, we're outgunned."
There are only 21 federal wildlife agents in the Rocky Mountain states.
Game wardens and wildlife officers have a death rate nine times higher than any other law enforcement profession. And although game officers have put hundreds of poachers behind bars, Grosz estimated they are probably not catching even one out of every five.
"Priests, policemen, government officials, it makes no difference," Grosz said. "Everybody can be taken in by greed and that's what this is."
Much wildlife poaching is driven by a thriving black market for trophy mounts and animal parts used for medicinal purposes in certain cultures. Those cultures - mainly Oriental - use items like bear gall bladders and seal gonads as pharmaceuticals.
A black bear with certain markings that give it medicinal value can sell for $37,500, Grosz said. A full-curl Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep trophy mount can fetch between $25,000 and $45,000.
"They make the money by having volume - the biggest and the best," he said.
That is now threatening the genetic integrity of wildlife, he said, because many of the prime animals are being taken by poachers. That leaves the lesser animals to propagate the herds and renders sound wildlife management impossible.
Officials know that, Grosz said, because while officers frequently used to seize prize animals at highway checkpoints, they now find "the little stuff that they're taking now because they can't find anything else."