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Hunter, Landowner, and Conservation Officer Attitudes on the Impacts of Illegal Wildlife Crime

By Jon Gassett, B&C Professional Member  

In 2020, the Boone and Crockett Club, in partnership with the Wildlife Management Institute, initiated a comprehensive study of the illegal take of big game in the United States. The goals of this effort are to better understand the difference between poaching and hunting, recognize the true costs of wildlife poaching, increase the level of detection and reporting, ensure that the punishment fits the crime, and ultimately to reduce poaching and other wildlife crimes. In 2021, the first phase of the research began and in January 2023, we published a story that shared the survey findings on reporting rates and perceptions on the “dark figure” of unreported wildlife crime. This second story in the series provides insight into the perception of impacts caused by poaching.

While having accurate estimates of mortality, including illegal take, can minimize some of the negative impacts of poaching on legal hunters such as reduced bag limits and season lengths, other factors such as animal quality, hunter experience, access to lands, and reactions from the public are still negatively impacted by the specter of poaching. Understanding the attitudes of people closest to or most impacted by poaching is critical to educating those groups on how to assist in increasing the risk to the poacher, as well as decreasing the reward. Understanding, and if necessary, changing the attitudes of groups impacted by poaching may also result in increased detection of poaching, causing the rate of that crime to decrease.

For this phase of the study, we conducted surveys of hunters, landowners, and conservation officers from eight states across the U.S. to better gauge their perceptions and attitudes about the impacts of poaching big game species. As we predicted, all three groups of respondents indicated that they considered the illegal take of wildlife in their state to be a serious issue in the U.S., with ~88% of Landowners, ~90% of Hunters, and ~97% of Officers rating the problem as “Somewhat Serious,” “Very Serious,” or “Extremely Serious” (Figure 1).

Figure 1. How serious of a problem do you consider the illegal take of wildlife to be in the U.S. in general (Landowners: n=3,353, Hunters: n=11,506, Officers: n=993)?

When we narrowed the focus of the questions to gauge their opinions on the impacts of poaching at a finer level, both hunters and landowners chose “Extremely Serious” for their own lands at the same level that they chose for the question regarding the U.S. (Figure 1). However, the respondents chose the “Very Serious” and “Somewhat Serious” responses at a lower rate for their lands than they chose for the U.S. (Figure 2). When combined, these lower rates of concern about their own lands, landowners (66.3%) and hunters (74.5%) rated the level of concern about their own lands as “Extremely Serious,” “Very Serious,” or “Somewhat Serious,” which is ~15-20% lower than their national-level responses.

Figure 2. How serious of a problem do you consider the illegal take of wildlife to be on lands that you own or hunt in your state of residence (Landowners: n=3,602, Hunters: n=11,559)?

The illegal take of wildlife is often cryptic, with few incidents being witnessed even by people present on the landscape (landowners, hunters, officers) when the crimes are taking place. However, the hunter and landowner groups surveyed feel that there is less concern for illegal take on properties that they closely control, than on other properties that are further away and more abstract, where they generally have less control.

When asked about lands that they owned or on which they hunted in states other than their state of residence, the combined responses rating the problem as “Extremely Serious,” “Very Serious,” or “Somewhat Serious,” were similar to the responses from the same groups at the national level, with landowners indicating 83.9% and hunters indicating 87.9% (Figure 3). These results appear to indicate that both landowners and hunters share diminished concerns regarding illegal take on lands that they control, own, or that are close enough to be monitored regularly.

Figure 3. How serious of a problem do you consider the illegal take of wildlife to be on lands that you own or hunt in other states (Landowners: n=2,875, Hunters: n=10,690)?

Our survey also asked the three respondent groups about impacts to the wildlife hunting experience and how they are affected by the illegal take of wildlife. Specifically, we focused questions on these areas of concern: 1) population impacts, 2) hunt quality/animal size, 3) hunt opportunity/animal numbers, 4) access to lands for hunting, 5) personal perceptions of the respondents, and 6) public perceptions of poaching vs. hunting. Figures 4-9 indicate the degree of negative impact that wildlife poaching has on these six factors. 

Figure 4. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on wildlife populations (Landowners: n=3,375; Hunters: n=11,416;  Officers: n=1,100)?

Figure 5. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on hunt quality -  size of animals (Landowners: n=3,362; Hunters: n=11,403; Officers: n=1,100)?

Figure 6. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on hunting opportunity - number of animals (Landowners: n=3,362; Hunters: n=11,404; Officers: n=1,099)?

Figure 7. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on access to lands for hunting (Landowners: n=3,347; Hunters: n=11,385; Officers: n=1,098)?

Figure 8. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on your perception of hunting (Landowners: n=3,345; Hunters: n=11,366; Officers: n=1,098)?

Figure 9. Does the illegal take of wildlife have a negative impact on the public's perception of hunting (Landowners: n=3,351; Hunters: n=11,362; Officers: n=1,099)?​​​​​​​

While Figures 4-9 all indicate that the majority of the three respondent groups either “Slightly Agree,” “Moderately Agree,” or “Strongly Agree” that poaching has a negative impact on the six factors, this result was strongest for impacts to public perception (Landowners – 73.8%, Hunters – 83.3%, Officers – 85.3%), impacts to lands accessible for hunting (Landowners – 68.2%, Hunters – 76.4%, Officers – 82.7%), and impacts to the hunt quality/size of animals (Landowners – 69.0%, Hunters – 77.4%, Officers – 81.5%).

Detecting wildlife crimes in any environment is cryptic, with most perpetrators often remaining undetected. Based on limited previous studies, estimates of the detection rates of wildlife crimes are exceedingly low – probably not exceeding a 5% detection rate. This in turn results in a loss of opportunity for the hunters as well as a loss of revenue to the trust resource agency that is charged with wildlife management.

In summary, all three groups surveyed (Landowners, Hunters, and Officers) indicated that they consider the illegal take of big game to be a serious problem both nationally and locally. Follow-up questions indicated that the groups felt that the illegal take of big game most likely results in a significant negative impact to wildlife populations, hunt quality, hunt opportunity, access to hunting lands, and public perception. The results of this study will help us to better understand the impacts of poaching, which will result in improved ability to educate the public, the customer base, elected officials, and the courts on the true impacts of wildlife poaching. It is our belief that this is the most logical approach to significantly reducing the levels of illegal take of wildlife throughout the country. 


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-Theodore Roosevelt