In a very charming video about mountain lion safety put together by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, a park ranger reassures hikers that the risks they face in lion country are very low. “The mountain lion commands awe and respect, but chances are you’ll never encounter North America’s largest and most elusive feline predator,” says Ranger Pat, right before a title screen declaring mountain lions “Colorado’s Ghost Cats.” Later in the video, she emphasizes that “people rarely get more than a glimpse of a mountain lion in the wild.”
Well, unless, of course, you’re willing to pay big bucks to get much more than a glimpse. If you had about $7,000 to spare on a hunting trip around the Colorado-Utah border a few years ago, you could have given it to Christopher Loncarich and his colleagues, who most likely would have duped you into thinking that you’d shot a mountain lion or a bobcat all by yourself. A lion or bobcat that they had already injured enough that the animals would be very easy targets.
What Loncarich and his associates did in Colorado and Utah wasn’t just cruel to animals, and dishonest to their customers; it was illegal. Loncarich and a co-conspirator, Nicholaus Rodgers, have been convicted in federal court of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which prohibits people from transporting or selling wildlife that has been illegally caught.
"Rodgers used collapsible traps or snares to capture cougars in the field, then released them to be found and shot by Loncarich’s unwitting clients, many of whom were unlicensed."
The Mail Tribune in Medford, Oregon, reported on the details of Rodgers’ plea agreement last month, which described their business in ugly detail. “Rodgers used collapsible traps or snares to capture cougars in the field, then released them to be found and shot by Loncarich’s unwitting clients, many of whom were unlicensed,” wrote Tribune reporter Mark Freeman. “Some of the cougars were shot in a leg before they were released from cages so they would not wander away from the clients in the area, according to court documents. Other animals were held in place by snares that were undetected by the poaching clients who shot them from a distance, the agreement states.”
According to the Department of Justice, the guides charged between $3,500 and $7,500 for mountain lion hunts and between $700 and $1,500 for bobcat hunts. The scheme lasted from 2007 to 2009, but came to an end when one of their high-roller clients turned out to be an undercover agent working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The jig was up. Loncarich and Rodgers were both indicted in January, and several co-conspirators in the business were investigated as well. They will be sentenced later in the year.
Mountain lion and bobcat hunting is allowed in the Midwest, but only in a controlled way that allows authorities to help regulate and track the populations of these animals in the wild. For instance, Colorado asks that hunters allow the Parks & Wildlife department to take a single tooth from each mountain lion that they kill. This allows researchers to collect the lion’s DNA and estimate and record its age, which helps them evaluate the health and lineage of the lion population in the area. Utah authorities examine and tag individual bobcat pelts and collect the lower half of the bobcats’ jaws for the same reason.
The Loncarich and Rodgers case may be an especially extreme one, but this type of crime is not unheard of in the U.S. Also last month, Alan Aronson, a man from Bend, Oregon, admitted that he had been “taking people on illegal hunts for elk and buffalo on another person’s ranch without the owner’s consent,” as theOregonian reported. Aronson didn’t have a license to run that type of business, and many of his paying customers didn’t even have licenses to hunt. (The photo accompanying this article, of the Aronsons’ “trophies” stacked in a pick-up truck, is a little hard to look at.) He and his wife were only two of 23 people arrested by the Oregon State Police in a massive poaching investigation.
Wildlife crimes like illegal hunts are prime examples of the tragedy of the commons, where people will individually over-use a shared resource, prioritizing short-term profit over long-term preservation, so much so that the resource becomes endangered. In 2010, two criminologists at Rutgers University wrote about this phenomenon, and how to fight it, for the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research.
“Current approaches to the illegal wildlife trade include implementing trade bans or regulatory schemes at the national and international level, yet their effectiveness of reducing the trade is unknown,” wrote Stephen Pires and William Moreto, after examining several case studies of poaching. “Perhaps, a better approach in reducing the illegal wildlife trade is a combination of making it more difficult to poach (i.e. situational crime prevention) and incentivizing locals to abstain from poaching.”
The effectiveness of international bans on selling or buying poached animals (like rhino horns and elephant tusks) is the subject of continued debate. Meanwhile, wildlife crimes are funding organized crime, slavery, and terrorism overseas. But if Pires and Moreto are right, “community-based sustainable management programs” are an important alternative. In other words, we might be able to best protect wildlife by starting local—through trying to shift the attitudes of the people who would be in the position to see and stop the crimes. In the case of crimes like Loncarich’s, this could mean starting an awareness campaign to warn would-be hunters that sham “hunting experiences” like this are out there.
In that organization’s surrounding area, at least, attitudes toward hunting and humane treatment may actually be shifting already. This might help raise general awareness of these types of crimes, and therefore start to prevent them. A 1996 case study of Colorado, written by Michael Manfredo and Harry Zinn in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, showed a generational shift in attitudes toward wildlife conservation. Younger generations were more likely than older ones “to be positive toward wildlife rights and wildlife welfare and negative toward wildlife use and hunting.” (That same year, animal rights activists pushed and narrowly passed a ballot initiative in Colorado that banned the trapping and snaring of wildlife on public land.)
Manfredo and Zinn predict that, if that pattern of shifting attitudes continues, it will have an impact on future wildlife management policies and their enforcement in Colorado and elsewhere. Maybe next time it won’t take an undercover Fish & Wildlife agent to stop crimes like this one.