Julie Butler was relaxing on the shore of Palisades Reservoir after a night of camping last Saturday when a barrage of rifle fire erupted nearby.
She grew more perturbed when she could see what the commotion was all about: Campers farther down the shoreline were unloading into a group of western grebes on the water.
“When those poor grebes went close to the shore, it was carnage,” said Butler, of Star Valley. “I’ve never seen wildlife killed before — and these grebes were just innocently being birds swimming across the water.”
Using binoculars, she counted at least five dead grebes floating on the water or being rounded up by a group of people gathered around the shooter.
Shooting waterfowl off the water from afar with a small-caliber rifle is not hunting, and Butler’s hunch that what she was watching was illegal proved correct. Someone in her party took a video. She phoned the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which dispatched game warden Cody Schoonover to investigate.
Schoonover showed up and began interviewing a “fairly big group of kids” that had two dead grebes in their possession. Nobody fessed up, he said, and because the incident happened on the west shore of Palisades in Idaho he passed the case on to a law enforcement counterpart at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
“It’s all up to the discretion of the Idaho game warden,” Schoonover said. “At this point, it’s going to be tough to prove.”
The man he passed the case to, Shane Liss, said forensic evidence is lacking. The two dead grebes the group had in possession were confiscated, but both birds had been hit by “through and through” bullets that did not embed in the carcasses. The video, he said, was taken from too far away and too focused on the birds to ID the shooter.
“The information I have is legitimate,” Liss said, “but the video is vague.”
Liss said he’s not giving up on the case and encouraged anyone with information to call Idaho’s catch-a-poacher hotline at 1-800-632-5999.
Western grebes in Idaho are classified as a protected non-game species that cannot be hunted. The penalty for shooting one of the long-necked, fish-eating waterfowl is a misdemeanor that can result in a $25 to $1,000 fine, with up to six months in jail, Liss said.
Butler, the eyewitness, is one person who hopes that there’s a breakthrough on the grebe-killing cold case.
“I hope they get fined, though I don’t know that would actually stop them in the future,” she said. “It just seemed like a total disregard, and was so ... random and cruel. They were laughing. Who would do such a thing?”