Temperatures are starting to climb and the days are long, and that’s good news for recreational shooters looking to get out of city limits to shoot guns. Summer is a popular season for recreational shooters across the state, but it’s also a critical time of year for some nongame bird species that nest in, or are commonly found in, popular shooting areas.
While the majority of hunters and recreational shooters follow the law, Fish and Game law enforcement officials remind shooters they are likely to encounter protected nongame wildlife, and there’s a heavy price to pay for pulling the trigger on a protected species.
Two men recently pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking a golden eagle (a protected bird of prey) at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. A judge sentenced both men to two years of probation, as well as a two-year hunting and firearm possession ban. Each had to pay a restitution upwards of $3,000.
It’s a shooter’s responsibility to know the law, and a good rule of thumb is to shoot targets instead of wildlife unless you know exactly what you’re shooting at and you’re doing it legally.
“The illegal shooting of protected nongame wildlife such as owls, hawks, eagles and other birds such as long-billed curlews is a persistent and prevalent problem in Idaho,” said Deniz Aygen, Fish and Game’s Watchable Wildlife Biologist. “Long-billed curlews and many species of raptors are identified by Fish and Game as species of greatest conservation need, and sadly, substantial poaching occurs in areas that were established to aid in their conservation, but are also heavily used by recreational shooters.”
Nearly all the nongame bird species found in Idaho are protected and therefore illegal to shoot. There are a few nonnative species that can be taken year-round with a valid hunting license, including European starlings, Eurasian-collared doves, house sparrows and rock pigeons.
Shooting protected birds may seem harmless, but it’s been to shown to affect some bird populations.
Research published in 2020 shows that shooting protected nongame species — specifically raptors and long-billed curlews — is more common in areas with high use by recreational shooters and happens more frequently than previously known.
Where was the study conducted? In Southwest Idaho at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.
The study suggested that illegal shooting may have a role in the long-term declines observed for the local population of long-billed curlews in the conservation area, which had dwindled from more than 2,000 in the late 1970s, to fewer than 200 in 2014, and is now well under 100 curlews.
The study also implied that a small segment of recreational shooters appear to be poaching protected nongame species while they are target shooting or hunting unprotected nongame species like ground squirrels.
This time of year, many shooters are targeting ground squirrels around the state. While there are a few species of ground squirrels open to hunting, such as the Uinta or Columbian ground squirrel, some ground squirrels are protected. For instance, Northern and Southern Idaho ground squirrels, rock squirrels, Piute ground squirrels (in East Idaho), Merriam’s ground squirrels, golden-mantled ground squirrels and Wyoming ground squirrels (in Southwest Idaho) are all protected species and should not be targeted.
If you can’t tell the difference between an unprotected and protected species of ground squirrel, or any other wildlife, you shouldn’t be targeting them.
Check out Fish and Game’s Ground Squirrel webpage for a full list of both protected and unprotected ground squirrel species before you go out.
People can help preserve Idaho’s hunting and fishing heritage by reporting poaching. Make the call if something doesn’t seem right. Contact Citizens Against Poaching at 1-800-632-5999.