News & Events
- 2010 Montana Shikar-Safari International Wildlife Officer of the Year
- FWP Files Felony Poaching Charges in Three Counties,
- Great Falls Man Fined and Jailed for Poaching,
- Red Lodge Man Convicted of Illegal Outfitting,
- Lewistown Man Faces 20 Poaching Charges,
- Five charged in illegal pay-to-hunt scam,
- Outfitter Ordered to Pay Fines and Restitution,
- The Price of Poaching
- Winner of the Morey-Bukvich Award,
- Montana’s Shikar-Safari Club International Wildlife Officer of the Year,
- Prolific Poacher gets Fines and Jail Time,
- Louisiana man sentenced in illegal hunting operation,
- Hamilton Man Pleads Guilty to Felony Illegal Outfitting,
- Poachers Feel Sting from Boone and Crockett Scoring,
- Man Gets Jail for Moose Carcass,
- Five Men Sentenced in Antelope Poaching Case,
Montana Meth Project’s New Advertising Campaign
LARRY MAYER/Billings Gazette
Freelance graffiti artist Alex Regnier paints a mural along Grand Avenue on Tuesday as members of the Montana Meth Project and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., unveil a new advertising campaign.
BILLINGS - At a morning assembly at Billings Senior High School, the Montana Meth Project is set to launch a new campaign Tuesday to reduce methamphetamine use.
Representatives of the Montana Meth Project were to announce the campaign in front of students and faculty from Senior and Billings Central Catholic High School. Community members and business leaders were to attend the assembly.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and principals Dennis Holmes from Senior High and Shel Hanser from Central High were to help with the launch, along with Billings Gazette publisher Mike Gulledge, chairman of the Montana Meth Project, Amy Rue, the project's executive director, and Emily Dean, teen advisory council volunteer.
Central to the new campaign is MethProject.org -- an online source of information about meth for teens -- supported by new television, radio, print, online, mobile and social media campaigns.
Meth Project.org is the culmination of six years of campaign development and research conducted with more than 50,000 teens and young adults, including 60 national and statewide surveys, and 112 focus groups, according to a Montana Meth Project news release.
A web-centric social network built around the theme "Ask MethProject.org," the campaign challenges teens to consider what they know about meth, and equips them with facts, tools, and resources to understand the risks of the drug and influence their peers, the release said.
Montana Meth Project officials said the website will provide the multimedia experience teens expect in the digital world. Organized around getting answers, speaking out, and taking action, MethProject.org will address teens' most frequently asked questions about the physical, mental, and social effects of meth use, they said.
Each question -- more than 350 in all -- is answered with a range of interactive facts, videos, animations, image galleries, polls, quizzes, personal stories from users, their friends and family, and first-hand accounts from experts.
The Meth Project's campaigns have been developed in consultation with top experts in research, prevention, treatment, advertising, and digital media, including experts from National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, RAND Corporation, UCLA, University of Illinois, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
MethProject.org will also serve as a platform for teens to connect and share, the news release said.
In the "Speak Up" section of the site, teens can post their own messages about meth through artwork, videos, stories, and photos, as well as comment on other teen submissions. "Take Action" provides ways for teens to get involved to prevent meth use or find help, and showcases teen-led community action programs across the country.
The Meth Project is also expanding its presence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. A new national Meth Project Facebook page will build upon its network of more than 27,000 fans across the Meth Project's individual state pages.
It will also expand on the Meth Project's previous campaigns with the launch of a dedicated Meth Project YouTube channel.
"The Meth Project has been remarkably effective in reducing meth use through its research-based prevention campaigns," Dr. Kevin Kunz, a physician and specialist in addiction medicine and president of the American Board of Addiction Medicine, said in the release. "The data clearly demonstrates that if teens understand the risks of meth use, they will make better informed decisions, and usage declines. Until now, there has not been a central place where teens could get all the facts about methamphetamine. MethProject.org fills that gap and is a definitive source of information about meth for young people."
The Meth Project said Tuesday that it is also launching new television, radio, print, online, and mobile campaigns that present meth's consequences in graphic detail. The ads challenge teens to question their knowledge and beliefs about the drug, asking, "What do you know about meth?"
The television spots -- directed by Academy Award nominee Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan and The Wrestler -- show teens reflecting upon the questions they might have asked before ever trying the drug as the harsh reality of their life on meth unfolds. The TV, radio, print, and mobile campaigns will run in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, and Wyoming -- reaching 90 percent of teens -- and are available nationally via Facebook, YouTube, and at MethProject.org.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, methamphetamine is one of the greatest drug threats to the nation. The agency recently reported the drug is at its highest levels of availability, purity, and lowest cost since 2005 due to increased levels of meth imported from Mexico, and growing rates of small-scale domestic production, the news release said.
RAND estimates methamphetamine costs the country between $16.2 billion and $48.3 billion per year in treatment, healthcare, and foster care services, as well as the costs of crime and lost productivity associated with the drug.
"Reducing demand is key to tackling this country's methamphetamine problem," U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in the news release. "For the past six years, the Meth Project has produced results with its educational campaigns which present teens with the realities of meth use. In Montana, we've seen this powerful campaign change the perceptions of an entire generation of teenagers. It's helped dramatically reduce meth use. Now the Meth Project will reach even greater numbers of teens -- showing them in very real terms how destructive methamphetamine use is."
The Meth Project is a large-scale prevention program aimed at reducing methamphetamine use through public service messaging, public policy, and community outreach.
Founded by businessman Thomas M. Siebel as a private-sector response to a critical public health issue, the research-based campaign has been cited by the White House as one of the most effective prevention programs and a model for the nation, the news release said.
Named the third most effective philanthropy in the world by Barron's in its latest global ranking, the Meth Project has been credited with significant declines in teen meth use in several states. Since the Project's launch, teen Meth use has declined 65 percent in Arizona, 63 percent in Montana, and 52 percent in Idaho, the release said.
2010 Montana Shikar-Safari International Wildlife Officer of the Year
Montana State Game Warden Captain Jeff Darrah is the 2010 Montana Shikar-Safari Club International Wildlife Officer of the Year. Captain Darrah has, in his 25 years of service as an officer with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, mad extraordinary contributions to law enforcement, landowner-sportsman relations, inter-agency cooperation and overall community support.
Jeff started as a Montana Game Warden in 1986 in Missoula as a trainee. From there he went to Glasgow and then onto Chinook and Philipsburg. He was appointed Warden Sergeant in Butte in 1992 and then promoted to Warden Captain in Missoula in 1998.
His field warden assignments took him from the short grass prairies of northeastern Montana to the high Rockies in the west. He worked colosely with private landowners in dealing with a number of contentious wildlife damage issues while, at the same time, he made number of important cases involving the abuse adn theft of the state's fish, wildlife and parks resources.
Jeff assumed the responsibilities of Warden Sergeant in Butte in 1992 and supervised four(4) field wardens in Region 3. As such, he worked cases in southwestern Montana ranging from simple violations to major poaching activities. He was also rsponsible for an area that included numerous nationally recognized trout fisheries and a large general recreational component.
As Warden Captain in Missoula, Jeff has led his wardens in a wide array of efforts. Jeff was involved in the Ruth poaching case, where a family took over 100 big game animals illegally. In sentencing the lead defendant to state prison for his poaching, the Judge told him, "You're not a hunter-you're nothing more than a killer of wildlife." Jeff has regularly led his crew in the excution of search warrants and worked with the department's Criminal Investigation Section in the development of major poaching cases, bringing large-scale, commercial wildlife criminals to justice.
His tenacity and professionalism have been key in other issues. In 2010, a major public access issue arose in the Bitterroot Valley regarding fishing on sloughs off the river. Jeff was able to help sort through a very difficult situation that involved public recreation rights, private property issues, as well as substantial pressure being exerted by celebrity landowners. He worked closely with the public while still maintaining open communication with the affected landowners to ensure that the situation didn't go out of control. Ultimately, it was resolved in court but in no small part due to Jeff's assistance in managing all the circumstances.
He has regularly worked closely with local sportsman and conservation groups, candidly working through issues and being an important conduit between FWP and the public. He has garnered the large-scale support of local sportsmen through his open style and willingness to physically assist with numerous porjects. He led regional wardens and enlisted the support and help of local anglers in improving local public river access sites around Missoula. He used his personal connections to solicit and obtain local landowner support in these otherwise controversial efforts.
I am proud to submit Jeff Darrah as Montana's candidate for the 2010 Wildlife Officer of the Year Award. I believe he not oly represents the finest of Montana's Wardens, but also is a standard bearer for the efforts made by wardens, conservation officers and resource enforcement officers across the nation.
FWP files felony poaching charges in three counties
BILLINGS — Six Florida residents, some of whom own ranches in Montana, have been charged with 18 wildlife violations, including felony crimes, committed during the past four years in Yellowstone and Big Horn counties.
In addition, felony and misdemeanor charges were filed against a Billings-area man and a Utah hunting outfitter accused of aiding the Florida residents in commission of wildlife violations.
The Montana Attorney General’s office filed the charges in Billings, Hardin and Helena starting in mid-October.
The defendants are Mark Gary Morse and his wife, MLissa Marie Morse, of The Villages, Fla.; their daughter, Kelsea Louise Morse; James “Ike” Rainey, Lenard Lee Powell and Richard E. Staton of Wildwood, Fla.; Toby Lee Griffith of Billings and David L. Duncan of Huntsville, Utah.
Mark Morse owns the M Square Ranch in the Pine Ridge area of Yellowstone and Big Horn counties southeast of Pompeys Pillar. Morse and Rainey jointly own the Wolf Mountain Ranch east of Hardin in Big Horn and Rosebud counties.
Mark Morse is president and chief operating officer of The Villages, a massive retirement community 45 miles northwest of Orlando, Fla. Rainey owns Rainey Construction Co., which does work in The Villages. Powell is listed as president of LPI Curb Service, a concrete construction company that does work in The Villages. Staton is a former Wolf Mountain Ranch employee. Griffith is an employee of the M Square Ranch. Duncan is licensed as a hunting outfitter in Montana. His licensing records with the Montana Board of Outfitters list his address as Cut Bank, Mont.
Mark Morse is charged with:
- Possessing a trophy mule deer buck in 2006 that was killed in Big Horn County in violation of conditions of an outfitter-sponsored license.
- Helping Rainey with an elk hunt in Big Horn County in September 2008 when neither Morse nor Rainey had an elk license valid in that area.
- Possessing three mule deer bucks in Big Horn County in November 2008 for which there were not proper tags.
- Possession of a bull elk taken in 2006 in Yellowstone County in violation of conditions of an outfitter-sponsored license.
- Killing a bull elk in Yellowstone County in 2007 when he did not have a valid Montana elk license.
- Helping his daughter, Kelsea Morse, kill a wild turkey, for which neither had a license, in the spring of 2007.
- Helping his daughter hunt, shoot and track a bull elk, for which neither had a valid license, in 2008 in Yellowstone County.
All of the charges against Mark Morse of killing or illegally possessing elk and deer are felonies because the animals were classified as trophies or their value exceeded $1,000. The combined maximum penalties for the charges against Mark Morse total $203,000 in fines, 21.5 years in prison and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Rainey is charged with:
- Hunting elk in Big Horn County without a license in September 2008, a misdemeanor.
- Possession of two bull elk and four mule deer killed on two consecutive days in November 2008 in Big Horn County and for which Rainey did not have legal licenses. Because the value of the animals exceeds $1,000, Rainey is charged with a felony.
- Two misdemeanor charges of waste of game in Big Horn County in September 2009. Rainey is accused of killing two elk, then removing only the head from one elk and allowing the meat from both carcasses to rot.
The combined maximum penalties for the charges against Rainey total $53,000 in fines, 6.5 years in prison and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
MLissa Morse is charged with killing a mule deer buck in Big Horn County in November 2008 without a license. Maximum penalty for the misdemeanor is a $1,000 fine, six months in jail and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Kelsea Morris is charged with wounding a bull elk with an arrow in 2008 and killing a turkey in 2007, both on the M Square Ranch, when she had valid Montana licenses to hunt neither. Total possible penalties for the two crimes include a year in jail, $2,000 in fines and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Griffith is charged with felony possession of a buck deer and bull elk that were killed by Mark Morse in 2006 in violation of Montana law dealing with outfitter-sponsored licenses. The law requires that the license be used only in the presence of the outfitter and the charges contend that the outfitter, David Duncan, was not present when the animals were killed. Griffith also is charged with putting his tag on a bull elk shot by Mark Morse in 2007.
Total possible penalties for Griffith include $51,000 in fines, 5.5 years in prison and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Duncan is charged in Lewis and Clark County with two felony counts of tampering with public records and a misdemeanor count of purchasing a Montana resident hunting license while he was a resident of Utah. The charges accuse him of buying Montana resident licenses in Helena using his parents’ Cut Bank address, though he has lived in Utah since 1998.
The felony charges accuse Duncan of falsifying required outfitter license documents, applications for hunting licenses and client logs.
Total penalties for Duncan could include $101,000 in fines, 20.5 years in prison and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Powell is accused of illegal possession of two bull elk and four mule deer killed in Big Horn County in November 2008. The combined value of the animals exceeds $1,000 so Powell is charged with a felony. The crime carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $50,000 fine and loss of Montana hunting and fishing privileges.
Staton is charged with two misdemeanors in Big Horn County and one misdemeanor in Yellowstone County in November 2008. He is accused of using his licenses to tag a deer and an elk that he did not kill. And he is accused of possessing a mule deer that was illegally killed in South Dakota. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Additional charges are pending against 10 other people identified during the investigation.
Region 4, Great Falls 7/2/2010
GREAT FALLS MAN FINED, JAILED FOR POACHING
Contact: Bruce Auchly
A Great Falls man, who pleaded guilty to five counts of poaching, was sentenced to 80 days in jail, fined $4,575, ordered to pay $300 restitution and forfeited his hunting and fishing privileges for 10 years.
Sidney Gamble Jr., 59, was sentenced June 23 by Cascade County Justice of the Peace Kathleen Jensen after he pleaded guilty to hunting without a license, unlawful possession of a deer, and three counts of failure to validate a tag. A waste of game charge was dropped.
The actions took place over the course of the 2009 hunting season, says Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden Bryan Golie.
Acting on a tip about illegal hunting activity near the old Dearborn Inn in rural Cascade County, Golie and two other game wardens interviewed Gamble who admitted to several offenses including shooting from the road, trespassing, improperly validating tags and waste of game.
Gamble has been in trouble before for poaching.
In November 2008, he was charged with an over limit of mule deer bucks and possession of unlawfully killed wildlife. For those offenses he was given a one year suspended sentence and fined $1,035.
Red Lodge Man Convicted of Illegal Outfitting
A Red Lodge man was convicted last week in Cascade County Justice Court of 38 misdemeanor counts of illegal outfitting on the Missouri River.
John Kebble, 48, was convicted by a jury after a four-day trial. Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens brought the charges against Kebble following numerous tips about his outfitting fishing clients on the blue ribbon trout section of the Missouri River downstream of Holter Dam.
“He lost his outfitting license in 2004 for a felony conviction of possessing dangerous drugs,” says Bryan Golie, FWP game warden. “But he continued to outfit for the next two years.”
A sentencing date has not been set by Cascade County Justice of the Peace Kathleen Jensen. Kebble faces a maximum of $1,035 in fines and six months in jail for each count.
Kebble was represented by Whitehall attorney Jack Morris.
The investigation was long and difficult, says game warden Capt. Mike Martin.
“This is as close as wardens will ever come to white collar crime,” Martin says. “We had to dig through license information, cancelled checks, bank deposits in order to follow the money.”
FWP wardens estimate Kebble made tens of thousands each year outfitting illegally.
“One of the jurors sought us out after the trial to congratulate us on having such a strong case,” Golie says, adding “This is the largest illegal fishing outfitter case prosecuted in the state of Montana.”
Dave Loewen, a member of MPEA’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Chapter, was named the winner of the 2009 Morey-Bukvich Award for his outstanding service to his chapter and to MPEA.
Loewen, who is currently the Game Warden chapter president, is known by fellow game wardens and department management as a dedicated professional at his work who is always working to help his fellow wardens achieve adequate pay and working conditions.
It was noted that Loewen stepped up last year and filled the position of president of the game warden chapter. Since that time the department and MPEA have been able to work out an agreement for basically negotiating a higher market for game wardens than could have been accomplished with the Department of Administration.
The game warden chapter and the department agreed to crucial market adjustments for the entry level and younger veteran wardens. Loewen played an important role in accomplishing this objective. On his own, Loewen rewrote the game warden position description which had not been updated for almost 15 years. After completing that task he took on the classification appeal process and although the Department of Administration did not agree to upgrade the wardens pay band, the work done by Loewen was accomplished on top of his busy schedule that included the hunting season.
Loewen also played an active part in the pre-budget negotiations process. His hard work, dependability and leadership has increased the interest of other wardens in their collective bargaining unit.
Loewen’s greatest attribute as a union leader is that management has immense respect for his professional ability as a wildlife officer, but they know that he is not willing to just roll over and do whatever may seem advantageous for his career.
Scott named Montana’s wildlife officer of the year
BILLINGS — Jeff Scott of Columbus recently was named Montana’s Shikar-Safari Club International Wildlife Officer of the Year for 2009.
Scott, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional investigator, is the first person to win the award twice and the first south-central Montana officer to be honored since 1988. He first won the award in 1983.
Scott started his wildlife-law enforcement career as a game warden in Missoula in 1978. He later moved to Billings and Columbus. He was named one of FWP’s first two regional investigators in 2005.
In nominating Scott for the award, James Kropp of Helena, FWP’s chief of law enforcement, said “throughout Jeff’s career he has excelled in all facets of the job. From working with landowners, gathering evidence on poachers, and to assisting other agencies in violent crime investigations. For these efforts Jeff has received letters of commendation from the Montana Attorney General, prosecutors, sheriffs, the FWP Director, the Western Wildlife Law Enforcement Association, and many members of the public, to name a few. These accolades are the result of everything from a gracious field contact, providing compelling testimony, to playing an instrumental role in the apprehension of a murderer.”
He said that, “Jeff has focused his impressive skills on major, complex cases and violators in Region 5, across the state, and even in other parts of the country and Canada. His tenacity and professionalism has been key in bringing large-scale, commercial wildlife criminals to justice. Whether he is assisting a field warden on a critical interview, working with other state and federal investigative agencies or taking the lead on complex multi-defendant felony investigation, Jeff has served in all these capacities in a stellar fashion.”
Region 4, Great Falls
LEWISTOWN MAN FACES 20 POACHING CHARGES
Contact: Bruce Auchly (406) 454-5840
A Lewistown man has been charged with two felonies and 18 misdemeanors for poaching activities last October that included seven deer, two antelope, one black bear and one wild turkey.
Craig Henry Metcalf Jr., 24, faces fines up to $50,000 and jail time up to five years. In addition, Metcalf could lose his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges from three years to a lifetime ban.
On Oct. 27 and 28, Metcalf Jr. was observed around the Lewistown area, shooting animals illegally, wasting game and hunting without a license.
Over the two-day period, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 investigation determined that Metcalf conducted illegal activities, ranging from the Moccasin Mountains north of town to the state fish hatchery south of Lewistown.
The felonies are possession of unlawfully taken wildlife: possessing and transporting six deer with the restitution value exceeding $1,000. And unlawful sale of game animals: selling a black bear and parts of a mule deer buck with the restitution value exceeding $1,000.
The misdemeanors are: possession of unlawfully taken buck antelope, possession of unlawfully taken black bear, two counts of outfitting without a license, two counts of shooting a big game animal from a road, two counts of shooting a big game animal from a vehicle, three counts of waste of a game animal, hunting a turkey without a license, hunting a black bear without a license and five counts of hunting deer without a license.
The charges were filed in Fergus County District Court. No trial date has been set.
NewsChannel 5 Investigate
Five charged in illegal pay-to-hunt scam
Billings Gazette | Posted: Thursday, January 21, 2010 12:00 am
A Kentucky man has been sentenced for running an illegal commercial hunting business that utilized public Block Management Areas between 2005 and 2007 in northeastern Montana.
Robert Nelsen, 60, of Bowling Green, Ky., was fined $5,555 and was ordered to pay $1,050 in restitution after pleading guilty. He also had his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges revoked for eight years. When he was apprehended, Nelsen had more than 30 pheasants over his limit.
Four other men were also charged as a result of the investigation, some of them associates and the others clients.
Records show the men hit the Block Management Areas 93 days in 2005, 122 days in 2006, and 21 days in 2007. The Block Management Program opens private lands to public hunters. Landowners are paid by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for allowing access.
"Unauthorized commercial ventures are not allowed on BMAs," said Mike Herman, Region 6 warden captain, in a statement.
"We're seeing an increase in this type of commercial activity in the northeastern corner of the state," Herman said. "For the sake of the everyday hunter and the program, we're trying to control it. We don't want Block Management Areas to become 'slip in and slip out' access points for an unlimited number of commercial ventures."
Nelsen pleaded guilty in Montana 15th Judicial District Court to a felony count of outfitting without a license. He also was convicted on the misdemeanor charges in Roosevelt County Justice Court: wasting and abandoning a game bird, discharging a firearm from a public roadway, three counts of hunting game birds without permission, three counts of accountability (for the conduct of clients), three counts of acting as an outfitter without a license, and seven counts of killing and/or possessing more than the legal limit of game birds.
Nelsen's associates and clients included William McCarley of Auburn, Ky., Perry Bond of Louisville, Ky., Chris Riopelle of Denver, Colo., and James Booth of Davie, Fla.
McCarley was convicted on a misdemeanor count of violating Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission regulations for illegally shooting a hen pheasant and was fined $135.
Bond was convicted on a misdemeanor count of hunting during a closed season for shooting a hen pheasant. He was fined $135 and was ordered to pay $25 in restitution.
Riopelle and Booth each received deferred prosecutions with fines and restitution attached to two misdemeanor counts of retaining the services on an unlicensed outfitter. They each paid a $575 fine and $500 in restitution and for a period of one year.
Prolific poacher gets fines, jail time
By EVE BYRON - Independent Record - 04/16/09
BOULDER — Shawn Lar must pay about $15,000 in fines and restitution and will spend 30 days in jail for long-term, widespread criminal activities involving 41 poached big game animals during a 14-year period in Montana and Alaska.
Lar, 42, illegally shot trophy caribou in Alaska, a trophy class eight-point bull elk in the Mussellshell area, and trophy class mule and white-tailed deer; and helped his sons illegally shoot black bear, bobcats and mountain lions in Lincoln and elsewhere in Montana, according to testimony presented Wednesday in Jefferson County District Court in Boulder.
He also apparently provided or swapped hunting trips with non-residents from as far away as Australia and Florida, allowing them to illegally use resident tags and using his taxidermy service to mount the animals. In addition, Lar figured out a way to remove permanent tags from some of animal hides and reuse them on poached game in his taxidermy business.
He pleaded guilty to two felonies in connection with the incidents, and four misdemeanors. In addition to the fines, restitution and jail time, Lar lost his right to go hunting, fishing or trapping, or even to accompany anyone doing those activities, for the rest of his life in Montana and 30 other states.
“The scope of activity here is almost breathtaking,” Judge Loren Tucker said. “In addition to the crimes you have admitted to here, you were involved in a variety of unlawful takings which are remarkable for their variety and their number. Unlawful outfitting, unlawful hunting, providing false information. You wasted animals, you improperly misused tags, and it looks like there are some violations of the federal Lacey Act. You profited in economic terms for your activities.
“And the astounding factor, which is consistent rather than surprising, is it appears you were a self-aggrandizing man, touting yourself in Pope and Young, Boone and Crockett, the newspaper and magazines.”
His sentencing Wednesday was the latest in a string of cases connected to the investigation, which began with a telephone tip to law enforcement officials two years ago (see story on 10A). So far, 17 men from six states and Australia have pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay fines and restitution totaling more than $57,000.
Lar sat in the defendant’s chair next to his attorney, Dave McLean, with his head bowed as the judge listed the illegal activities. McLean said while he couldn’t understand Lar’s actions, he hoped Tucker would look beyond the crime and recognize that Lar also was a 19-year, trusted employee at Blue Cross and Blue Shield whose bosses wrote letters of recommendation for him; a father of three boys who has been married for 22 years; and a volunteer at many nonprofit organizations, including the Jefferson City fire department and Habitat for Humanity.
McLean added that other than traffic tickets, Lar has no criminal history and the public humiliation has hurt him irreparably. He also noted that Lar aided wildlife officials by asking other people who were involved in his illegal activities to admit their guilt.
“I can’t offer an explanation or justification other than the guy spiraled out of control on one issue — hunting — in his life,” McLean said. “I truly believe there isn’t a punishment equal to what this has done to Mr. Lar emotionally and at times physically, recognizing what the man of the house has done to his family and his wife in particular.”
However, Barbara Harris with the Montana Attorney General’s Office noted that Lar had stolen from the state as well as from other hunters over a lengthy period of time, illegally taking what honest hunters can only dream of and removing that forever.
Chad Murphy, the lead investigator in the case for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, added that a lawful, ethical hunter typically doesn’t kill this many animals in a lifetime, especially those of trophy caliber like these. He also was upset that Lar was teaching the illegal activities to his children and others.
“He’s been hunting all his life. He knows the rules and regulations,” Murphy said. “I didn’t find where any mistakes were made. This was pre-planned. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
The first felony count involved 13 deer and two elk taken between 1994 and 1999. According to court documents, Lar sometimes shot mule and white-tailed antlered bucks, as well as bull elk, but either didn’t tag them or used someone else’s tags on some of the animals. The second felony came from a hunting trip to Alaska in 1998, in which Lar shot a small caribou and used his father’s tag on it, then shot a second caribou, used his tag on it, and entered it in the Boone and Crockett scorebook.
The misdemeanor counts involved illegal taking of bobcats and mountain lions, usually out of season, and of violating taxidermist record-keeping laws.
Louisiana man sentenced in illegal hunting operation
A 61-year-old Louisiana man who served as a booking agent for a large illegal hunting operation in northeastern Montana was sentenced Wednesday to six months of home detention and three years of probation.
Anthony Bazile, of Braithwaite, La., pleaded guilty earlier this year to violating the Lacey Act, which regulates the interstate sale, transportation and purchase of wildlife. He is believed to have made about $119,000 in profit for booking hunts.
Bazile was heavily involved with a Saco-area ranching family in running an illegal big-game outfitting business. He and the family ran the scheme in Phillips and Valley counties through the fraudulent use of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks landowner-sponsored licensing program, which was designed to allow property owners who are Montana residents to let a limited number of people hunt on their private land. Quotas are placed on the number of licenses sold.
Three members of the ranching family were fined and given probationary sentences in August for their roles in the scheme, which involved 61 illegal hunts from 1998 to 2003.
District Judge Jack Shanstrom placed 74-year-old Leo Bergtoll on federal probation for three years, while his son, 44-year-old Darrel Bergtoll, was sentenced to three years and four months of probation. Anna Lou Bergtoll, 69, was sentenced to two years of federal probation and, along with her husband, Leo, lost her hunting and fishing privileges for five years. All three were fined $15,000.
Shanstrom also revoked Bazile's hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for three years, and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.
Prosecutors say the Bergtolls and Bazile charged out-of-state hunters for applying for the licenses as well as outfitting fees. If their out-of-state clients didn't obtain licenses, they were still encouraged to come to the property to hunt. Prosecutors say the Bergtolls sold their personal hunting licenses and those of their employees to clients.
Three elk, 31 white-tailed deer and 10 mule deer were seized during the investigation, which started after game wardens received tips from other hunters and landowners.
Hamilton man pleads guilty to felony illegal outfitting
By PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic | Posted: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 6:15 am
HAMILTON - A Hamilton man has pleaded guilty in Ravalli County District Court to felony charges of illegal outfitting. James Mockerman, 65, will be required to pay nearly $35,000 in restitution and could face additional fines and the loss of his hunting and fishing privileges as part of a plea agreement filed with the court late last week.
The agreement calls for deferring imposition of the sentence for three years on two felony counts of outfitting without a license. Mockerman will be the first person sentenced under a relatively new law that allows the state to charge people involved in illegal outfitting with a felony.
The law was passed by the 2007 Montana Legislature as part of what then was called the "poachers package." The bills contained in the package were intended to beef up enforcement of wildlife crimes through tougher penalties, by maintaining warden numbers and adding more investigators.
The package was supported by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Illegal outfitting can be "extraordinarily lucrative," said Mac Minard, MOGA's executive director. "The penalties were in no way aligned with the magnitude of the crime. ... People in the state of Montana value their wildlife resource. They wanted to see something done."
Before the law was changed, illegal outfitting was a misdemeanor. Now a person can be charged with felony outfitting without a license if they outfit sportsmen for five days or more or provide services in excess of $5,000.
FWP regional investigator J.D. Douglas said the state handed out 67 citations to people who used Mockerman as an outfitter. All of those people pleaded guilty and have paid a total of $25,000 in fines. Mockerman began outfitting illegally in 1999 after he purchased a home in the Little Sleeping Child area, according to court documents. He told his hunting clients to stay off the main roads and claim his wife as a cousin should anyone ask about his guided hunting trips in Ravalli County.
In 2006, undercover FWP and Michigan Department of Natural Resources wardens booked a hunt with Mockerman. At the beginning of the hunt, Mockerman told the wardens that since he was not a licensed outfitter, his hunters could hunt anywhere they wanted, court documents said. He also told them their $800 in cash was for lodging and meals only and that he couldn't be the sole preparer of meals - the hunters might have to make their own coffee sometimes or butter their own toast.
Mockerman told the men if they ran into any other people, they were to claim to be his wife's cousins. They were also to stay off the roads to avoid being seen by the neighbors. He also provided them with a two-way radio and told them that while it's illegal to use radio to pursue game, it's unlikely they'd be caught. They were told to refer to any elk they saw or killed as "Ed."
Besides the two felony counts, Mockerman also pleaded guilty to 14 additional misdemeanor counts of outfitting without a license. "I acted as an outfitter when I had no license to do so, including providing, for consideration, personal service, vehicle and watercraft for people to hunt and fish, all in Ravalli County," Mockerman wrote on his guilty plea.
"This was a real big case for us," FWP Region 2 warden captain Jeff Darrah said. "It started when people began observing what they thought was illegal outfitting and then let us know about it."
People considering outfitting illegally should take into account the penalties are much stiffer now, he said. "If they are going to take a chance and outfit illegally, they should know there will be a cost," Darrah said.
Mockerman's sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 21.
Ravalli Republic editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at email@example.com
Outfitter ordered to pay fines, restitution
by PERRY BACKUS - Ravalli Republic 1/22/10
James Mockerman had lived the American dream.
And then he moved to Montana where it all turned to dust.
Like his father before him, Mockerman spent most of his life working for the largest office manufacturer in the world at a plant in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went to work as a laborer right out of high school and by the time he retired in 1999, he was a project manager.
Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart. They had three children who have grown and prospered. Before he moved to Montana, his only brush with the law came in 1962 when he got a speeding ticked in his Pontiac GTO.
“They are salt of the earth mid-westerners,” said his lawyer, John Smith. “They are hard working people … whose golden years have been tarnished greatly.”
On Wednesday, Mockerman, 65, was sentenced for a decade of illegal outfitting from his home in the Little Sleeping Child area near Hamilton that began as a way to supplement the couple’s retirement income.
His arrest in 2006 was the result of an undercover operation that ended in the state citing 67 clients who had used Mockerman as an outfitter. All of those people pleaded guilty and paid a total of $25,000 in fines.
Court records said Mockerman told the undercover wardens at the beginning of their hunt their $800 in cash was for lodging and meals and that he couldn’t be the sole preparer of the meals - the hunters might have to make their own coffees sometimes or butter their own toast.
He told the men if they ran into other people, they were to claim to be his wife’s cousins. They were also to stay off the roads to avoid being seen by neighbors. He gave them a two-way radio and told them while it’s illegal to use a radio to pursue game; it’s unlikely they’d be caught. They were told to refer to any elk they spotted or killed as “Ed.”
Mockerman pleaded guilty to two felony and 14 misdemeanor counts of outfitting without a license.
He was the first person in Montana sentenced under a relatively new law that allows the state to charge people involved in illegal outfitting with a felony.
The law was passed by the 2007 Montana Legislature as part of what then was called the “poacher’s package.” The bills contained in the package aimed at beefing up enforcement on wildlife crimes through tougher penalties, by maintaining warden numbers and adding more investigators.
Before the law was changed, illegal outfitting was a misdemeanor.
FWP Investigator J.D. Douglas testified that Mockerman was undercutting licensed outfitters by more than $2,000 a hunt.
Outfitting is highly regulated to protect the wildlife resource, Douglas said. Hunter success had dropped in the area where Mockerman was illegally outfitting.
“That resource was not able to sustain that level of harvest,” Douglas said.
The state was able to document that Mockerman spent at least 400 days in the field with hunters.
A person can be charged with felony outfitting without a license if they outfit sportsmen for five days or more or provide services in excess of $5,000.
Mockerman’s lawyer said his client grossed a bit more than $63,000 over the years.
On Wednesday, Mockerman handed over a $34,346 cashier’s check to the state to pay for restitution and investigative fees. The sum was agreed on in a plea bargain agreement that deferred imposition of a sentence for three years.
He raised the money by putting a second mortgage on the family’s Montana home.
Haynes said it wasn’t enough. He ordered Mockerman to pay a $20,000 fine for the felony charges.
Haynes also suspended his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for 20 years, which means Mockerman won’t be allowed to participate in those activities in Montana and the 30-plus states included in an interstate compact.
Haynes told Mockerman he hoped the sentence would send a message back to man’s friends, family and neighbors in Michigan that Montana’s resources aren’t open for plunder.
Mockerman apologized to the court, saying he’d made a “horrible mistake” and that he was ready to pay for that.
“Even good people make mistakes and I’m sorry,” Mockerman said.
Smith said the Mockermans have sold their home in Michigan and now live in an apartment. They’ve taken jobs doing laundry at a nearby motel to help make ends meet.
“This turned their lives upside down,” Smith said.
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Editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poachers Feel Sting from Boone and Crockett Scoring
MISSOULA, Mont.—Courts in a growing number of states are using the Boone and Crockett scoring system to slap poachers with more felony charges, stiffer fines and longer revocations of hunting privileges.
Game animals with large antlers and horns aren’t just trophies, but valuable conservation resources that warrant harsher penalties for abuse, say Boone and Crockett Club officials.
“I can’t think of a better use for Boone and Crockett’s scoring system than assessing trophy-class fines for poaching trophy-class animals. All wildlife violations are setbacks for conservation, of course, but we’re especially pleased to see stiffer penalties for illegally taking an animal that is larger, has lived longer, is worth more as a benchmark of good management—and would have been a rare and cherished prize for a legal, ethical, license-buying hunter,” said Lowell E. Baier, president of the Club.
Idaho, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states now use all or parts of the Boone and Crockett scoring system for wildlife law enforcement.
Ohio, for example, is in the second year of a new penalty structure that is “based on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system to calculate restitution values of illegally taken or possessed deer,” said Ken Fitz, law enforcement program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The penalty structure includes a formula that is somewhat complex, but for illegally killed deer with a Boone and Crockett gross score of 125 or greater (without drying time), the result is an exponential increase in restitution charges. In fact, the new regulation increased Ohio’s penalty for poaching a 200-class whitetail buck from $400 to $17,000!
“Last year we had two deer with restitution values ordered in the area of $13,000,” said Fitz. “From a deterrent point of view, the law is still too new to evaluate, but I believe it’s having an effect. Under the old law, some people thought $400 in restitution was a gamble worth taking for a trophy buck. Under the new law, the stakes are much higher and not worth it for most folks.”
He added that the new law seems very popular with both the hunting and non-hunting public in Ohio.
In Idaho, the Boone and Crockett scoring system helped up the ante after Idaho poacher Frederick R. Schoenick of St. Maries killed a trophy mule deer prior to the season opener. Schoenick took only the head and cape, leaving the meat to waste. A game warden collected a DNA sample from the headless carcass. Later, when Schoenick entered the antlers into a local big buck contest, wardens used DNA to positively match the antlers to the carcass.
Because Schoenick’s illegal buck scored over 150 Boone and Crockett points (actual score was 214-3/8), it was considered a trophy animal by Idaho statute and therefore subject to a more severe civil penalty—a $2,000 fine instead of the normal $400.
Jon Heggen, enforcement bureau chief with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, explained, “In 1998, a group of concerned sportsmen believed that stiffer penalties would create a bigger deterrent to poaching. Their work transformed into Senate Bill 1499 which passed into law that same year. One aspect of this new legislation was increasing civil penalties on trophy big game animals.”
Idaho law actually cites Boone and Crockett standards as the official definition of “trophy” for several species, and states that the highest of the typical or non-typical scores shall be used to assess penalties.
“The 1998 law also established a felony violation when accumulated civil penalties surpass $1,000 within a 12-month period, so trophy status soon became a mechanism that helped elevate certain fish and game violations from misdemeanors to felonies,” said Heggen.
This felony clause, in turn, increased the ability of Idaho courts to revoke a poacher’s hunting privileges for more than three years and up to a lifetime.
Schoenick pleaded guilty to taking a trophy mule deer during closed season as well as wasteful destruction. He received a $3,158 fine, 5 days in jail or 120 hours of community service, 2-year probation and 2-year loss of hunting privileges.
The Boone and Crockett scoring system originated early in the 20th Century as a means of recording details on big game species that were thought to be disappearing. Conservation efforts led and funded by hunters took those species from vanishing to flourishing. Today the Club’s records book remains a valuable tool for measuring the success of ongoing management programs.
Baier said, “Healthy fish and wildlife represents an investment by state conservation agencies on behalf of all citizens. The Boone and Crockett Club has always stood behind law enforcement professionals and programs, and today we’re especially proud that our trophy concept is adding more teeth to the laws that help protect public fish and wildlife.”
About the Boone and Crockett Club
Founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, the Boone and Crockett Club promotes guardianship and visionary management of big game and associated wildlife in North America. The Club maintains the highest standards of fair-chase sportsmanship and habitat stewardship. Member accomplishments include protecting Yellowstone and establishing Glacier and Denali national parks, founding the National Forest Service, National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge System, fostering the Pittman-Robertson and Lacey Acts, creating the Federal Duck Stamp program, and developing the cornerstones of modern game laws. The Boone and Crockett Club is headquartered in Missoula, Mont. For details, visit www.booneandcrockettclub.com.
Man gets jail for moose carcass
By PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic
HAMILTON - A 23-year-old Victor man who had bragged to his friends about killing a young moose and cutting off its antlers and beard last fall will spend more than a month in jail and lose his hunting and fishing privileges for life. Jesse L. Huddleston was sentenced Thursday in Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes' court. He was charged with felony possession of game animals and two misdemeanors in the death of a young moose killed in October near the Burnt Fork Ranch east of Stevensville. Huddleston bragged to friends about killing the moose with a .22-caliber rifle and shooting several deer and turkeys. Someone called the state's poaching hot line. An X-ray of the moose head found a small-caliber bullet in the base of its skull near the spine. Wardens later found the moose antlers, as well as illegally taken whitetail deer antlers and feet and feathers of two unlawfully killed turkeys at the residence where Huddleston was staying. Huddleston admitted to the wardens that he was present when the moose was killed, but said he wasn't the triggerman, court records said. Ravalli County Prosecutor Bill Fulbright said Huddleston was convicted of similar violations in Tennessee before he moved to Montana. “He's shown a callousness for wildlife,” Fulbright said. “There's no reason he should continue to have the privilege of hunting.” Huddleston's attorney, Sasha Brownlee, asked the judge to consider the fact the man had full-time work and was preparing to get married in determining his sentence. She said another man shot the moose and another admitted cutting off its head and beard. Huddleston told Haynes: “I know what I did was stupid and wrong.” Haynes opted to defer imposing sentence on the man for five years on all charges. The terms of the sentences included 27 conditions, restitution of $1,525 for the moose and a requirement to serve 60 days in jail with credit for the time already served. Haynes also revoked the man's hunting, fishing and trapping rights for life. Huddleston was not a model inmate during his earlier stint in jail, the judge said. He fought with other inmates, was found with contraband and struck a window hard enough to injure himself. While he was out of jail before sentencing, he was charged with felony aggravated burglary and misdemeanor assault and criminal trespass for allegedly coming uninvited into a man's home and punching him in the nose, court records said. That case is still pending. “You need to toe the line,” Hayne told Huddleston at the end of the hearing. “You don't strike me as a fellow used to toeing the line. You strike me as a fellow who does what he wants to do.”
Region 4, Great Falls 4/13/2009
FIVE MEN SENTENCED IN ANTELOPE POACHING CASE
For killing 17 antelope illegally over three years, four Minnesota men and a Stanford man had to pay $8,540 in fines, restitution and court costs and each man forfeited his privileges to hunt a and trap in Montana for two years.
“This is an important case because this was premeditated, organized and an abuse of our natural resources,” said Tom Flowers, Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional investigator.
From 2005 to 2007, the group would receive antelope licenses good in one district, then hunt illegally in another district, Flowers said.
An investigation led to the Stanford area where FWP Game Warden Bob Hammer, with the assistance of the Judith Basin county attorney’s office, was able to get the men to plead guilty. Justice of the Peace Larry Carver sentenced the men in March.
“The non-residents would typically apply for and receive the majority of their antelope permits in FWP’s Region 5 (south central Montana) where their chance of a successful drawing was high,” Flowers said. “Then they hunted in Region 4 (north central Montana) with the benefit and knowledge of a local resident.”
The illegal activity was discovered when the Minnesota men were stopped at the Canada-North Dakota border, returning from a separate waterfowl hunting trip. A search of the vehicle revealed a camera with pictures of harvested antelope that didn’t appear to be properly tagged. When questioned the men said the antelope were killed in Montana.
Michael L. Bossen, age unknown, Stanford pleaded guilty to taking an antelope in the wrong district and unlawful possession of an antelope.
Adrian Marsden Jr., 62, Bayport, Minn., pleaded guilty to taking an antelope in the wrong district and unlawful possession of an antelope.
Thomas M. Sanders, 51, St. Paul, Minn., pleaded guilty to taking an antelope in the wrong district and unlawful possession of an antelope.
Edward J. Dobbs, 44, St. Paul, Minn, pleaded guilty to taking an antelope in the wrong district by accountability and unlawful possession of an antelope by accountability.
John E. Lockner, 44, Woodbury, Minn., pleaded guilty to taking an antelope in the wrong district, two counts of unlawful possession of an antelope, two counts of taking an antelope in the wrong district by accountability and unlawful possession of an antelope by accountability.
The accountability charges are from Dobbs and Lockner taking responsibility for their teenage sons’ actions.
Missoula News – Jan. 21-28, 2010 Edition
The Price of Poaching
For most, hunting season ended in November. But a troubling number of illegal hunters are stretching Montana game wardens to the brink
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Game Warden Aaron Berg pulls into the lot at Kelly Island west of town. The agency's TIP-MONT hotline reached him by cell phone a few minutes earlier, reporting someone spotted a group of waterfowl hunters trespassing on private property near McClay Bridge. The hunters meandered downstream, the tipster said, so Berg figures they parked their rigs at a public access point nearby.
He jokingly sums up the sight at the boat ramp as "classy." A yellow Dodge four-door pickup sits with one back door wide open. Lashed to the hitch is a pair of deer testicles—clearly a sign of the owner's prowess this past hunting season. A few magpies flit around the rear of the truck, snacking on the vulgar display.
Berg doesn't see the owner, but he's fairly certain he knows who it is. He won't name names, and only comments that FWP law enforcement has run into this individual before.
"I hope it's not him," says Berg. "He's already been in trouble."
A call to dispatch with the truck's plate number confirms his suspicions about the owner. However, Berg says there's nothing to suggest the pickup's owner is a suspect in the TIP-MONT call. The warden decides to move on to the tipster's house to collect whatever account of the incident he can.
"It's bad enough to drive around town with a deer rack sticking out of the bed of the truck, you know?" Berg says, still going on about the testicles as he cruises down Spurgin Road. "People that aren't really familiar with hunting or educated about it, that's their first image of it—these egos. Somebody who's not really into it or moved here from somewhere else sees that and they're just like, 'Idiot.' That's what they're thinking, and they're asking, 'Are all these people like this?'"
The moment speaks to a steady erosion of the Montana hunting ethic as Berg and many of the state's roughly 550,000 licensed hunters have known it throughout their lives. A select minority place ego—and, in more extreme cases, money—above the traditional beliefs of subsistence and connection to nature, Berg says. And the buck doesn't stop with antlers and testicles.
Ten years ago, FWP uncovered only a handful of cases involving poaching and illegal commercial outfitting in Montana annually. Now those activities dominate much of what the agency's law enforcement division does on a daily basis, with game wardens investigating nearly 40 such cases a year. Convictions for felony violations alone have generated more than $38,000 in fines and $179,000 in restitution payments to FWP since 2004, and have resulted in the cumulative loss of 174 years of hunting, trapping and fishing privileges for convicted felons.
"It's gotten to the point where, beginning in 2002, there's a part-time special prosecutor assigned to Fish, Wildlife and Parks cases with the attorney general's office," says FWP Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Mike Korn. "That should be some indication of the degree of it."
Like the majority of Montana hunters, Berg grew up with a simple, more traditional view of the sport, what he calls a "time to spend with your dad and your brothers and your grandpa." But his job at FWP requires Berg to regularly face the uglier side of hunting. Since becoming a game warden in 2003, he's used a combination of modern forensic science and what he calls "good, old-fashioned police work" to build so many cases that he's lost count of the total.
The evidence is hard to look at—scores of antlers, piles of hides, photo after photo of big game shot in the name of bragging rights and discarded in the field without remorse. Because of the very nature of poaching, FWP biologists have no way of determining how many animals are taken from localized populations each year. The extent of the devastation to the resource remains a troubling mystery for those charged with monitoring big game numbers.
"Social poaching groups have gotten so big and people's egos have gotten so big about illegally taking animals, they allow themselves to do serious damage to the resource," Berg says. "They're taking trophy game out of the gene pool."
In December 2007, the Missoula district court stripped Philip Mark Payton of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for the rest of his life. He was required to pay $52,744 in fines, restitution and court costs two years after FWP law enforcement stormed his Seeley Lake home, confiscating evidence that would eventually prove Payton had illegally killed 86 deer, antelope, elk, moose, black bear and mountain goats since 1990. A five-year statute of limitations meant Payton could only be charged for the killing of 30 of the animals.
Berg still remembers executing the 2005 search warrant, back in his early days with the division.
"Just to go through his house, it took 10 or 12 hours," Berg says. "There were more than a dozen of us there, and we took everything. Most of it was illegal."
The case Berg helped build against Payton proved Payton had broken nearly every regulation in the state's hunting laws. Berg says Payton had given duplicate tags to family and friends, hunted big game at night and out of season, and even went so far as to hire himself out as an outfitter without licensing or insurance.
While Payton earned the distinction of being one of the largest cases of illegal hunting in Montana in decades, he stands as just one example of the characters FWP has come to know all too well in recent years.
"We're seeing it more and more, we're uncovering it more and more," Korn says. "But we still believe we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg. Whether it's the commercialization end or just individuals who are hell bent on getting the biggest Boone and Crockett [Club] bull they possibly can...we're all disturbed about it. Not only does it take away from people who really commit themselves to hunting and are, due to their legitimate efforts, able to take a prize like that, it's outright theft. People are stealing from the state, from the people of this state."
The severity of hunting violations varies greatly in FWP's books. Some offenses seem minor, like a father shooting two deer and placing his son's tag on one. Others require poachers to go out of their way to break state laws. Wardens often get calls about hunters casting lights across fields at night—an act known as spotlighting. Poachers also typically hunt before or after the general season, which lasts from late October through November, and might exceed harvest limits or down game that require specialized permits.
Financial profit lifts the problem to even more damaging heights. Outfitting pours some $187 million into the state's economy each year, and there are those who seek to cash in on the trade without proper licensing, land access permits or insurance. Their impact on the resource is extreme, and the penalties they face when law enforcement catches up with them are equally harsh.
According to FWP, John McDonald ran an illegal commercial poaching ring near Gardiner for more than 10 years. For his role in killing 44 animals, McDonald was sentenced to one year in federal prison, paid $50,000 in fines and restitution, and lost his hunting, fishing and trapping rights for life. Due to Montana's participation in an interstate wildlife violator compact, McDonald lost the same rights in 19 other states.
"The licensed outfitting community has an enormous amount of regulation that they are managed under," says Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA). "And the consequences of violation are so large—loss of your livelihood, loss of your license—the reputable outfitter just isn't going to mess around with that."
MOGA sees these illegal operations, dubbed "rogues" by the legitimate outfitting community, as a threat to more than just wildlife conservation. Minard says that with legitimate outfitting contributing so much to state tourism, there's a trickle down effect that hits everyone. It'd be nice if the problem was exclusive to the industry, he says, but illegal operations "reflect badly on the entire state." Those at FWP agree, and decry the financial motives behind it.
"The real commercialized end of it, the felonious end of it, it's people who are willing to pay a lot of money for really quick gratification and people who are willing to basically sell Montana's soul—the resources we have here—for money," Korn says. "It comes down to cold hard cash, and it's too bad."
Money plays into another immediate problem for FWP law enforcement: As poaching and illegal commercial outfitting rise in Montana, so to does the agency's trouble in hiring and retaining staff.
FWP employs only 71 game wardens statewide. An additional 27 sergeants, captains and special investigators work throughout the agency's seven administrative regions, but field patrols and initial investigations fall primarily on the shoulders of wardens. According to Korn, each is responsible for covering square mileage roughly the size of the state of Delaware.
"There are so few of us and we're spread so thin across the state," Berg says, "it's hard to be everywhere at once."
Staff limitations at the division are due partly to low pay. Korn puts the starting wage for wardens at $17.63 an hour—about $5 an hour less than what most county deputies in Montana make, he says. FWP funds its law enforcement branch through money from hunting and fishing license sales, as well as supplemental dollars from excise taxes on firearm and fishing gear sales. FWP reports revenue has dropped almost $2 million since 2003 while expenses have risen by more than $6 million. Possible budget cuts now on the table for FWP include leaving vacant enforcement positions open. And with wardens struggling to support families—Berg says his wife also has to work to keep them afloat—vacancies are becoming a growing concern.
"It's very frustrating, because it costs money to train guys," Korn says. "But they find that, yeah, they'd love to stay here, but they can make way more as a campus cop. They have a family to feed."
FWP law enforcement isn't the only one to recognize a lack of financial stability on its part. Their presence in the field has a direct impact on the average hunter, limiting the reach of illegal activities and preserving wild game for the conservation-conscious majority.
"There's always going to be poachers operating in Montana," says Land Tawney, co-founder of the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (HHA). "But the more resources we can get...the better handle we can get on the situation. One of the biggest ones we need to address that we haven't yet is the pay of our wardens."
On the ground, Berg can't stress enough how big a problem funding is for FWP law enforcement. Meager salaries hardly compensate wardens for the long hours they work simultaneously patrolling for daily compliance and putting together complex cases. If FWP is already having trouble holding on to the wardens it has, Berg says, what chance does it have of conducting more hires to lighten the incredible load on those now employed?
"It's just not uncommon to get home, sit down to eat dinner, just get your uniform off and the phone rings," Berg says. "You end up working 16-, 17-, 18-hour days sometimes."
FWP's need for better financial support hasn't escaped those with a voice in state politics. In 2007, a number of agencies and organizations across the state—among them MOGA and HHA—backed a set of four bills deemed the "Poacher's Package." Those bills aimed at increasing the weight of the book Montana courts throw at wildland offenders and the amount of money available for law enforcement's efforts.
Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, spearheaded the legislative effort and helped get all four bills passed.
"That's been the favorite piece of legislation I've worked on," says Jent, who served in the state's House of Representatives for three years and faces his third session with the state Senate in 2011. "I've been interested in this for a long time, since I was a kid...I realized the best ways I could protect the wildlife resource in Montana was to act on bills that would be supported by sportsmen and law enforcement."
Jent, who once considered a career as an FWP game warden before entering law school, is particularly proud of the increased penalties the Poacher's Package put in place for large-scale criminal activity toward wildlife. Senate Bill 100 raised the charge from outfitting without a license from a misdemeanor to a felony, ensuring that criminals would face jail time as opposed to a slap on the wrist.
"A lot of times I'll see a poaching case and I'll see the penalties they got," Tawney says of HHA's motivation for supporting the Poacher's Package. "I always think it's not big enough. They're getting away with murder, they really are."
Jent's efforts also rewrote state law to place the first $60,000 of restitution payments for wildlife crimes right into FWP law enforcement's pocket, a victory of which he's particularly proud. With the division as strapped as it is, Jent says someone has to find ways to keep enforcement strong.
"The trouble with game wardens right now is they're being captured by other states and agencies with high salaries," he says. "We need to figure out what wardens should be paid."
Jent had hoped to introduce a bill in the 2009 session aimed at raising existing wardens' salaries for the purposes of personnel retention. However, in light of the state's economic troubles, Jent put the draft on hold. He fully intends to introduce the legislation in 2011, and he's not alone in recognizing the need.
"These are not easy cases to make," Minard says. "They require an awful lot of resources and time...Even with [the Poacher's Package] in place, which is substantially better than what they had before, they're still understaffed, and they're still under-gunned, and these are very difficult cases to make."
Jent says he's "cautiously optimistic" about future attempts to boost funding for FWP. Still, as a lifelong hunter in the Bozeman area, he realizes the issue won't hit the session floor without some controversy.
"You get more questions and more debate with fish and game legislation," Jent says, "because everybody who's had a hunting tag since age 12 thinks he's an expert."
FWP doesn't make front-page busts on a daily basis. Far more often, law enforcement finds itself dealing with individuals wreaking havoc on wild game with no thought of money. Berg's dealt with enough casual poachers to know just what he's looking for.
"You can pick these guys easily out of a crowd," Berg says. "They're the types that bring their deer head to work. I'm not generalizing, but it's largely ego. They want the biggest and they think they're the best."
Berg has seen more than his share of wasted game during patrols. After killing an animal, poachers often take the head for the antlers and leave the meat to rot. Berg has no patience for these incidents. They're symptomatic of the same blatant disrespect that breeds commercial poaching operations.
"It usually involves one or two animals instead of 80 to 100, like in that case," Berg says, referencing the Philip Mark Payton case that involved 86 illegal kills. "But if they're doing that this time, how many years in a row have they been doing it?"
With limited staff resources to devote to regular enforcement, wardens like Berg rely on a long and varied list of tactics in nabbing poachers. For starters, Berg says, people would be surprised how helpful Internet social networking sites have been in uncovering illicit activities. FWP regularly scouts Facebook, hunting forums and market sites like eBay for possible leads. They've relied on remote cameras, animal decoys positioned in places off-limits for hunting and even the occasional undercover assignment to bust minor poachers and major illegal outfits. Mainly, though, Berg says good relationships with landowners and simply being a presence in the wild are a warden's strongest advantages.
Building a case calls for a similarly diverse set of tools, or "the CSI stuff," as Berg calls it. Search warrants and crime scenes offer any number of possibilities for incriminating evidence. Ballistics, fingerprints and animal hair fibers have proven useful, as well as DNA, both human and animal, to place suspects at a crime scene.
"We were able to pull some bullets from some of the animals, and during the search warrant we pulled DNA from all the animals we found," Berg says of one case from a few years back involving a group of young men slaughtering animals near Lincoln. "There was also a Gatorade bottle that had been littered by one of them and we took that. We had the DNA swab from all these suspects, and the crime lab here in Missoula matched DNA from the saliva or skin cells or whatever that ended up on the Gatorade bottle to one of the suspects. It was a one in, I don't remember, 250 million chance."
Thanks in part to that Gatorade bottle, the case Berg cites ended in sentencing and restitution fines, and the responsible parties answered for killing one moose, two elk and several deer well past hunting season.
Berg has come to rely more heavily on the TIP-MONT hotline over the past six years than nearly any other enforcement strategy. In 2009, Berg took more hotline calls than any other FWP warden in the state—a total of 105, just under half of which materialized in solid cases, he says. With so much ground to cover, the agency is forced to count on the general public to police itself. While some of the calls can be vague, Berg says, the calls get more detailed every year.
"It's becoming very well used, and the information we get has become a lot more reliable," says FWP TIP-MONT Coordinator Brian Shinn. "The average citizen has become more vigilant. We are seeing people carrying cell phones and getting license plate numbers, and the information they're giving is more exact. We're able to make convictions off it whereas in the past it was more people calling in general saying, 'Oh, somebody's shooting deer,' and then hanging up. It's turning out to be quite a good tool for enforcement."
According to FWP, TIP-MONT calls have not only increased in quality but in quantity. The last few years saw a dramatic spike in the total number of calls the program has received, from 1,300 in 2006 to 2,000 last year, Shinn says. And few tipsters seem interested in the cash rewards FWP offers.
"Last year we gave over $16,000 in reward money to people that turned in legitimate cases," Shinn says. "That's a very small percentage of people who were actually eligible."
Two TIP-MONT calls to FWP in late 2008 led wardens to an elk gut pile along Ninemile Road west of Missoula, and a further tip involving portions of an elk rotting in a backyard landed the agency a search warrant. According to the warrant, filed with the Missoula district court, DNA from the gut pile matched that of the carcass in Ryan Pollock's yard. One of the tips included information that the individual behind the killing conducted the hunt by spotlighting from the road. The case is one of several currently under investigation by FWP.
Berg ends his patrol in the north hills, where a special post-season elk hunt has entered its second week. Hundreds of elk have congregated under a tree on private property, out of legal reach of hunters. Berg doesn't expect to catch any poachers, but the view of the Missoula Valley is spectacular.
The Kelly Island TIP-MONT call has led to a dead-end so far. He has plate numbers in case any suspects turn up, but with the limited evidence he has the incident is hardly a priority. Now he sits at the edge of a hillside development, watching the elk through his binoculars and discussing the impacts humans have on local wildlife.
"They're creatures, too," Berg says. "They were here before we were, in a sense. Look at that housing development over there. Years ago, before that existed, you'd see maybe three or four or five hundred head of elk standing there. Since all these developments in all these drainages have gone in, these elk have been separated into numerous herds. We're having an effect on these animals, and we have to try to minimize that by keeping people around to enforce the laws."
Despite the problems plaguing FWP law enforcement, Berg insists the division continues to have a positive impact. He spends part of his time teaching hunter safety courses and says education can go a long way in stopping poachers before they ever start. With the size of some egos and the amount of money to be made, Berg realizes illegal hunting activities will never fully disappear. But he has a personal warning for anyone looking to cash in on Montana's most prized asset.
“You’re going to get caught eventually,” Berg says. “There’s always somebody watching”