Largest Wildlife Case in State's History
Five years of investigating suspects from 13 states and one foreign country in what officials rank as the largest wildlife case in Wyoming history has resulted in 42 individuals being convicted, including three for felonies, for illegal deer and antelope hunting in the Gillette area.
An outfitter from Gillette, assisted by several area landowners, knowingly guided and helped unlicensed and improperly licensed hunters illegally take at least 60 deer and 18 antelope in the late 1990s, the investigation by state and federal wildlife officers exposed.
The owner of the outfitting business and his partner, an area rancher, pleaded guilty recently to felony conspiracy of the federal Lacey Act for their role in recruiting hunters to the operation, who then returned to other states with the illegally taken deer and antelope. The Lacey Act can be violated when wildlife taken in violation of state law is transported across state lines. Both men had their hunting and guiding privileges revoked for two years and were sentenced to one year in jail, by Federal District Judge William Downes of Casper. One of the outfitters was fined $5,100 and the other $30,100.
"In terms of the number of individuals convicted, fines and restitution paid, and hours investigated, this is the biggest poaching case ever in Wyoming," said Game and Fish Department Wildlife Investigator Lin Bashford.
Three area landowners, including a Campbell County Commissioner, were convicted of one misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act for allowing the outfitters to conduct out-of-season hunting on their ranches. Two of the Gillette ranchers were fined $2,525, assessed $2,500 in restitution and had their hunting privileges revoked for one year. A 44-year-old Weston rancher pleaded guilty to three violations of the Lacey Act. His sentencing is pending. A local taxidermist and guide was also convicted of one Lacey Act violation. He paid a $2,525 fine and forfeited one year of hunting privileges.
Six other Campbell County residents, including guides and cooks of the outfitters, were convicted of state charges of transferring their big game licenses to nonresident hunters. Another guide for the operation pleaded guilty for failing to report a hunter's violation.
The outfitter operated on approximately 20 ranches in Campbell and Crook counties. Bashford and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Tim Eicher led the investigation, which began in 1995. In October 1990, a G&F check station at Baggs stopped three California clients of the outfitter who had taken deer on resident licenses.
"A variety of people in the community heard rumors of the outfitter's poaching activities and let us know," Bashford said. That prompted Bashford and Moorcroft game warden J.D. Davis to watch one of the outfitters guide a Tennessee client in November 1995. That surveillance resulted in the outfitter being convicted for accessory to taking a deer and antelope in a closed area. Officers continued to suspect the operation was poaching and received a tip that broke the case open in the fall of 1998. A Florida wildlife officer alerted a Wyoming game warden that some Floridians were planning to hunt the Gillette area, probably illegally, in November 1998.
Bashford recognized one of the names, a Homestead, Florida taxidermist. Locker plant and interstate game tag records Bashford reviewed over the years showed several Gillette area hunters had sent heads to the taxidermist to be mounted.
"It always seemed odd a resident hunter would use a Florida taxidermist," Bashford said. "It began to make sense with a Florida resident making a hunting trip to Wyoming."
A check of airline reservations revealed five persons in the Florida man's party. Bashford surveyed license records and discovered none of the men had deer or antelope licenses. Surveillance discovered the group, indeed, illegally hunted deer with the outfitter on the trip.
On March 10, 1999, officers simultaneously served search warrants on the outfitter's residence, a Gillette locker plant and taxidermist shop, and the Florida taxidermist's business. Ten days later a search warrant was served on another outfitter's home. Evidence obtained and subsequent interviews led to many other suspects.
The Florida taxidermist was convicted of felony conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act. He was fined $2,100 and ordered to pay $2,500 restitution and sentenced to four months home detention. His hunting privileges were also revoked for three years.
A 26-year-old self-employed car dealer who accompanied the Florida taxidermist in the 1998 trip, pleaded guilty to eight misdemeanor Lacey Act counts for killing eight deer from 1995-98. He was fined $40,200, ordered to pay $20,000 restitution and had his hunting privileges revoked for 18 months. All restitution resulting from federal charges was ordered by U.S. District Court to the G&F for law enforcement purposes. State-assessed restitution goes to the state of Wyoming's general fund.
Twenty-eight other defendants from Florida, Texas, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and El Salvador also pleaded guilty to federal or state charges of illegally taking deer in Wyoming. A total of 39 white-tailed and mule deer mounts were also forfeited by violators as part of the sentences in the case.
"This case emphasizes the responsibility of hunters to know the laws and regulations of the state where they are hunting," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Masterson of Casper. "If citizens are going to exercise their hunting privilege, they should do it with reputable, law-abiding guides and outfitters."
Interviews revealed the outfitters charged clients $1,500 to $2,000 per hunt and more if additional animals were desired. All convictions were obtained through plea agreements with no cases going to trial. "That's a tribute to the quality of work and solid evidence Lin (Bashford) and Tim (Eicher) gathered from a meticulous and detailed investigation," said Masterson, who coordinated prosecution of the cases. "Whenever we needed a supporting detail, such as an airline record or witness interview, Lin and Tim were always ready to go out of their way to build the cases."
Over 5,000 hours of investigation by state and federal officers in several states were logged on the case. The investigation was also assisted by the Campbell County sheriff's and attorney's offices and the Wyoming Board of Guides and Outfitters. The convictions netted a total of $261,000 in fines and restitution.
In the 1990s, Lacey Act convictions were also obtained on a Star Valley and two Pinedale outfitters and their clients for similar violations.
Copyright © 2000 J & D Outdoor Communications. All rights reserved.