The allure of money and the thrill of the hunt - without regard for the law - has filled a warehouse behind the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources with the pelts of wild animals.
"This one was just a cub," says Craig Miyagishima, holding up the hide of what was obviously a very young cougar. Gazing out over the pelt-covered floor, he spots an even smaller hide and shakes his head. "Another cub."Miyagishima, assistant chief of law enforcement for Wildlife Resources, said the pelts represent dozens of successful investigations into illegal hunting in Utah over the past couple of years. But he suspects they also represent only the tip of the iceberg.
The confiscated pelts include 20 mountain lions, 18 bobcats, 15 black bears, 10 fox, four beaver and a ringtail cat. "It's my gut feeling that this is probably no more than 20 percent of what's been taken," Miyagishima said.
Most of the bear and cougar hides are from mature animals and were probably intended for trophies. Some of the bobcats and fox may have been shot for the value of their fur. A few, especially the young, were probably the victims of "joy shootings."
The pelts are expected to fetch about $10,000 at auction Saturday morning, about as much as some affluent, out-of-state hunters are willing to pay - no questions asked - to bag just one of Utah's legendary black bears.
The auction will be held from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Wildlife Resources Law Enforcement Building, 1588 W. North Temple. Officials said this year's sale has attracted a great deal of interest because a similar auction last year was canceled.
Miyagishima explained that the pelts scheduled for the auction block in 1989 spoiled when the division's storage freezer malfunctioned. The amount of poaching, not the calendar, determines the interval between auctions, he said.
Potential buyers include taxidermists, trophy enthusiasts, fur dealers and even the individuals from whom the hides were seized, Miyagishima said. Animals shot in self-defense are especially prized.
"Some people who've been involved in those situations like to tell the story and then point to the hide up on the wall and say, `There it is,' " Miyagishma said. "Of course, in most cases, they could have avoided shooting it by just walking away."
In Utah, it is unlawful to possess certain animal hides without a permit, and violators face stiff penalties: A year in jail and a $2,500 fine for bear and cougar; six months and $1,000 for the others.
"The judges are sentencing violators to jail, which we think is important because serving time in jail is a big deterrent," Miyagishima said. "Another big deterrent is our ability to seize all of the equipment used in the taking and transportation of the animal. That includes the firearm and the vehicle. And we also revoke their licenses."
But even those penalties are not enough to scare away some individuals. "They become obsessed with the hunt, and if they get caught poaching in Utah, they'll just go do their shooting in another state."
To stop that practice, a number of Western states have entered into a compact that strips poachers of their hunting licenses regardless of where the violation occurred. Colorado and Oregon have taken the lead in the effort, with Idaho, Nevada and Arizona following suit, Miyagishima said.
"Three other states are hoping to join the compact in 1991. We've been considering the possibility of presenting the idea to the Legislature here in January," he added.
Wildlife Resources has only 67 field officers to patrol the state, forcing its law enforcement arm to rely on undercover investigations and help from residents to augment patrol activities. The undercover work has helped net cross-over criminals who deal in illegal hides, drugs and guns, Miyagishima said.
"We work closely with federal and local police agencies. I think you might be seeing some interesting results from the undercover work in 1991," he said. "Several cases are coming to a head."
According to Miyagishima, investigators throughout the West have been comparing notes and have found "connections and common names." It is not so much a criminal organization as a criminal association, he said.
A decline in the fur market - due in part to anti-fur protests - has resulted in a noticeable decrease in the poaching of some animals, such as bobcats and fox. Miyagishima said a bobcat pelt that might have sold for as much as $350 at auction a few years ago may go for as little as $100 on Saturday. The division once seized 80 bobcat pelts in a single investigation.
However, there has been no letup on the illegal hunting of trophy animals. Also doing well is the big-game guide business, which Miyagishima would like to see regulated. "In other states, guides are highly regulated. Here, anybody who wants to can call himself a guide."
Miyagishima said one of the most potent weapons against the illegal hunting activity is the division's poaching hotline. "It has helped tremendously," he said, urging anyone with information about such activity to call the toll-free number: 1-800-662-3337.