GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Big game outfitter Ernest Jablonsky and company may suffer in federal court the consequences of illegally hunting mountain cats. But, the case of hunting without required permits and asking hunters to lie on reports started with state outdoors law enforcement.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 Warden Shawn Briggs said he was especially proud of the work that led to 16 charges against twin brothers James and William Page, who had spent years allegedly poaching trophy elk on a Fergus County ranch.
“That case was originally turned into us from a concerned citizen,” Briggs said of the start of the case.
From there, FWP law enforcement was able to gather enough information to obtain search warrants and review electronic devices. From there, the investigation turned to examining pictures taken and text messages sent from smartphones, and records of where they were at what time.
“The case was important mainly because of the severe loss of resources to the public, the exploitation of the resource going on here,” Briggs told the Great Falls Tribune.
Hunting regulations are among the highest counted in FWP violations statewide, according to violation data from the state agency.
For the most part, the numbers aren’t too surprising. The numbers of violations generated in each region are basically congruent with the scale of population, outdoor opportunities and public lands access.
Region 3, the southwest region, one of the more populated regions also includes some of the best hunting and fishing terrain in the state, generates the most citations: 7,262 from 2010-2018. That’s more than five times the violations issued on the Hi-Line in Region 6, which saw 1,526.
FWP Law Enforcement Chief Dave Loewen said the contrast of violations in these areas aren’t all surprising, considering population, square mileage and access to state lands.
“(Region 3) is probably the best region when it comes to all around sporting activity,” Loewen said. “There’s a constant draw to southwest Montana, there’s a tremendous amount of public land and block management. When you get more people, the possibility of additional violations go up also.”
The southwest was particularly prone to wildlife, aka hunting, violations during the 2010-2018 span, with 2,578 violations. Fishing was the next most common violation with 1,522.
According to FWP, the region is about 60 percent public land, about 26 percent of all angling happens there, and 50 percent of the elk harvested in the state come from this region.
Region 2, the Missoula area, follows southwest Montana with 5,467 violation totals in this time frame, then Region 5 (southcentral/Billings area) with 4,503. Region 1(northwest Montana) saw 4,119 violations; Region 4 (north-central Montana) had 2,842; Region 7, a massive eastern Montana area centered on Miles City, had just 2,810.
Of Region 3, Lewis and Clark County suffers the most violations: 1,962 between 2010 and 2017. Loewen said the county also overlaps into regions 4 and 2, which means wardens from several different regions patrol the area.
“There’s a lot of public resources in and around Lewis and Clark County,” Loewen said. “Anything a person can hunt and fish and trap can be found there in some place.”
Beaverhead County, sixth in the region for population, is a far second place for violations in the region. Home to the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, Big Hole Valley, a stretch of the Continental Divide and more, the county is a natural place to attract outdoor enthusiasts, of both the legal and illegal nature.
According to the employment data from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, the accommodation and food services industry is the top employer in the county with 485 jobs. That’s about 12 percent of total employment in the county.
Violations in the region are coming in lower numbers in recent years, falling from 1,190 in 2014 to 724 in 2016.
Region 3 is also home to more wardens than any other region. The southwest region has 18 wardens, 3 sergeants and a captain. Regions 1, 2 and 4 all have 12 wardens, 2 sergeants and a captain. Region 5 has nine wardens, a sergeant and a captain while regions 6 and 7 have six wardens; region 6 has one sergeant and a captain, region 7 has two sergeants and a captain.
Loewen said the law enforcement work done around the state will suffer as part of the funding mechanism installed last year. Pittman-Robertson funding used to be about 3 percent of FWP’s law enforcement division’s funding but was bumped up to 30 percent during the last legislative session. That’s tricky for law enforcement because those funds can only be used for wildlife restoration and management activities, such as wildlife surveys, grizzly bear conflict prevention and habitat maintenance, among other things.
That’s kind of like requiring city police to spend 30 percent of their time maintaining city parks.
Since FWP law enforcement has had to apply 30 percent of their weekly hours to these new objectives, Loewen said he knows there are some leads that will go unchecked, but rules are rules.
“We’ll do our best to deal with those, but all of our cases generally start off with some small tip or proactive encounter, so by default all of our investigations, public contacts, violation counting, it affects everything across the board,” he said. “There’s definitely law enforcement work that needs to be done that’s not being addressed.”
In violation types, “recreation” tickets are most common: 8,943 from 2010-2017. Hunting violations are second, 7,783 in that timeline, followed by licensing, with 7,248.
Loewen said recreation taking the lion’s share of tickets isn’t surprising, considering recreation encompasses year-round activities such as four wheeling, boating and camping. Hunting seasons provide a more narrow time frame.
According to the FWP numbers obtained by the Tribune, fines and restitution stemming from violation cases generated $4.9 million between 2010 and last month.
State law designates fines and fees from FWP violations (about $3.8 million from 2010 to last month) are instead split 50-50 between the state and county and deposited into those general funds.
Restitution from these cases, about $1.1 million from 2010 to last month, must be submitted to the state department of revenue for deposit in the state special revenue fund for hunter education purposes or for enforcement. Loewen said he was unable to find a specific percentage of the FWP law enforcement’s budget generated by restitution.
Restitution for James and William Page, the twins caught in Fergus County, totaled $49,000. James Page, charged with poaching five trophy bull elk, ended up taking a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to 10 misdemeanors, forfeited his hunting and fishing privileges for 13 years, paid more than $4,000 in fines and $40,000 in restitution.
William Page, charged with poaching two bull elk, pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors in his plea deal, which included forfeiting his hunting and fishing privileges for 12.5 years, paying $2,635 in fines and $9,000 in restitution.
“Under Montana statute, game animals belong to all citizens of the state,” Fergus County Attorney Kent Sipe wrote in an emailed statement. “My goal, in this case, was to get restitution for those unlawfully harvested animals. That was more important than having felony convictions on their records.”