Billings, Mont. — AN eagle, an elk, a bighorn sheep, a grizzly bear -- if you were willing to pay enough, poacher Loren Ellison would shoot it for you or guide you to it. This spring Ellison was handed the stiffest penalty ever meted out for killing and selling protected wildlife species -- 15 years in federal prison.
Ellison himself succinctly described the results of poaching when he bargained with an undercover United States Fish and Wildlife agent over the price of a grizzly bear hide.
``Well, they're gonna be extinct, you know,'' he told the agent during a secretly taped conversation, justifying his $5,000 asking price.
Ellison's stiff sentence reflects a new public attitude toward wildlife protection, federal wildlife officials say. It's a viewpoint that trails by several years the congressional effort to make the exploitation of wildlife a crime -- a felony with the same penalties as bank robbery.
This new trend is embraced not just by environmentalists and wildlife officials, but also by conservative Westerners who have hunted in the back country of the Rocky Mountains for generations. Local residents are well aware that the habitats of threatened species are so remote there are seldom witnesses to illegal hunting. And they are beginning to recognize that valuable species may be destroyed by poaching.
``I don't think the public would have sanctioned this sentence 10 or 15 years ago,'' says Joel Scrafford, senior resident agent of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for four Western states. ``They believed in the Robin Hood-type poachers taking the king's game to feed the family.
``But when you can take a rural, conservative Montana jury, and they sanction a 15-year prison sentence, well, this is a bright spot reflecting the general attitude of the people,'' he says of Montana, where the ubiquitous pickup truck inevitably carries a hunting rifle in the back window.
Mr. Scrafford's nine agents, who cover 400,000 square miles of wilderness in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Colorado, began their summer grizzly-protection patrols last week. Scrafford says his men went into the field greatly encouraged by the recent court action, after a decade in which they felt their enforcement efforts received little public or judicial support.
According to government estimates, illicit wildlife trade in the United States nets $50 million to $100 million a year. As various species are singled out for protection, their scarcity makes them more valuable -- providing incentive for increased illicit trade. Today, the biggest customers for poachers in the Rocky Mountain states are sport hunters seeking rare trophies and buyers for Asian medicine producers who use organic materials such as teeth, claws, and antlers in folk medicines.
The crackdown on poaching began in 1981 with amendments to the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife law dating back to 1900. The amendments put teeth in the law, establishing felony punishments for commercial violators and international traffickers.
Because cases take two or three years to develop, they are just beginning to show up in the courts. In eight major undercover operations since 1982, officials have won more than 360 convictions.
Scrafford's agents, like those in other undercover wildlife units around the country, are also involved in ``sting'' operations. Agents have used fake storefronts and false identities to infiltrate commercial poaching rings.
The Ellison case, called Operation Trophy Kill, focused on poaching in Yellowstone National Park. Special agent John Gavitt, posing as a taxidermist, was able to win the confidence of Ellison and his trading partners. The sting took three years to pull off and has been criticized by defendants as a case of entrapment -- but the 33 convictions in the case still stand.
``Before, this had a low priority in the courts. And it disturbs me, because some of the weak sentencing we've had has encouraged these [commercial hunters],'' says Scrafford. He says a typical $250 fine for a wildlife violation was not a deterrent to poachers, who can make big money in illicit trade.
He recounts statistics from recent undercover cases to underline his point:
Big-game trophy collectors pay thousands of dollars for a ``guaranteed hunt,'' in which guides take them on unlicensed, out-of-season hunts.
Buyers for the Asian medicinal market pay as much as $5,000 for a black bear carcass and $60 to $70 a pound for elk antlers in velvet, the soft fur that covers growing antlers. (A rack of antlers weighs 15 pounds.)
Wealthy Arabs have paid up to $100,000 for a live white gyrfalcon for sporting use.
One bighorn sheep carcass was sold three times -- first for $350, then $1,200, and finally $6,000.
Further, he adds, one hunter last year paid $33,000 for a license to hunt bighorn sheep in Utah, a fact that underscores the animals' value. Scrafford says the hunters have become more and more sophisticated. He notes they use automatic weapons, silencers, airplanes, and even explosives in their work.
In his office, between investigations in the field, he flips through piles of photos taken during undercover operations to illustrate what he calls the ``mass carnage'' taking place in the wild. In the pictures, the hunters are smiling broadly next to dead mountain lions, coyotes, bears, elk, antelope, mountain goats, mule deer, eagles, and beaver.
``We're dealing with a finite resource, and these animals are becoming more valuable every year,'' says Mr. Gavitt, now in charge of special operations for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington.
``The Wild West is not what it used to be. The wide-open spaces are not as wide-open as they used to be,'' Gavitt says. Even in the last strongholds of Western-style independence, people are recognizing that their natural resources need to be protected, he says.