Hunting Accident File > VIOLATIONS: > 2004


Linked to organized crime, poaching cases are increasing

Associated Press - 1 May 2004

HELENA - The two men wandered into the Stevensville tavern and the conversation turned to hunting and fishing - not unusual in any Montana bar.

They asked about one of the bar's regulars they'd heard about, a local named Ben Ruiz.

Before long, Ruiz approached the pair and offered his services, telling them he was a hunting and fishing outfitter. He said he could not only arrange a hunting or fishing trip but could get one of the men, from Iowa, an illegal Montana resident hunting license - for a price.

What Ruiz didn't know was the two men were undercover state game wardens investigating reports that Ruiz, who was not a licensed outfitter, was arranging illegal hunts.

Wildlife officials say Ruiz, who later was convicted or pleaded guilty to seven misdemeanor fish and game violations, is just one example of what they consider a troubling and growing trend in Montana - people taking cash to help others poach.

Increase in cases

Poaching is hardly a new phenomenon to Montana, and most cases still involve individuals illegally killing animals. The most common citations remain hunting or fishing without a license or hunting on private property without permission.

But wildlife officials say that over the past decade, they have seen an increasing number of cases of what they call "illegal commercialization" of wildlife, in which money - sometimes thousands of dollars - is exchanged to arrange illegal hunts.

"People are willing to pay large amounts of money to kill a trophy animal and don't care if it's illegal or not," said Jim Kropp, chief of law enforcement for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "They get comfortable hunting behind locked gates and shooting what they see.

"Things Montanans see every day and take for granted are worth huge amounts of money to some individuals," he said.

Kropp said it is difficult to provide accurate figures on how big an increase there has been in such illegal hunts. But he said it has been steady enough that catching those involved in illegal paid hunts has become a major focus for game wardens.

Legitimate guiding and outfitting is a huge business in Montana, with state rules and regulations for those who provide the services to licensed hunters. Officials say the vast majority obey the rules. But the files are full of examples of a robust underground market for the less scrupulous - those that take money, or are willing to pay money, for an illegal hunting or fishing trip.

Hurting legitimate hunters

Mel Montgomery, a Lima outfitter and chairman of the state Board of Outfitters, said they are crimes committed by people who give legitimate outfitters and hunters a bad name.

"You're looking at people who would cripple an elk and leave in the field, people we wouldn't want out there in the first place," he said.

Dean Ruth of Seeley Lake was sentenced last month to four months in prison for arranging illegal hunts for a Pennsylvania man. Authorities said Nicola Alfeo, who had no hunting license, paid Ruth $1,800 to help him shoot mule deer and antelope in October 1998.

Prosecutors described Ruth as a man who wanted to kill "anything that walked" and considered wildlife nothing more than a way to make money.

Vernon T. Smith III, an outfitter from Immigrant, lost his outfitter's license and spent six months in jail after selling his mountain lion license and services to an Illinois man in April 1997 for $3,000, so the man could illegally shoot a cat and send it home.

Both Smith and Ruth were charged in federal court because they transported illegally killed game across state lines, a violation of the federal Lacey Act.

More recent are the cases of a landowner-outfitter at Wibaux in Eastern Montana who allegedly sold his daughter's deer license to an out-of-state client for $3,000 and the Saco landowner involved who took $1,200 to allow out-of-state hunters to illegally hunt on his property.

"It all comes down to money," said Assistant Attorney General Barb Harris, who handles many state fish and game cases. "People who live in this state all the time know where the wildlife is and where people are. If they so choose, they can show out-of-staters where (game animals) are and how to take them illegally."

Driven by money

Montana has become a popular place for those willing to pay top dollar for the chance to kill a trophy animal illegally, Harris said.

Money drives both those willing to pay and those wanting to get paid, said Doug Goessman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in Bozeman.

While a hunt with a legitimate outfitter or guide for a trophy animal might cost $5,000 or more, an illegal excursion can run half that, Goessman said.

"Somebody with a little bit of larceny in their heart will say that's a really good deal," he said.

Some coveting a trophy-class moose or bighorn sheep may not want the uncertainty of waiting to get lucky in annual tag drawings. Kropp said the chance of drawing one of the state's bighorn sheep tags each year, for example, is about 1-in-100, whether resident or nonresident.

"These folks with a whole lot of greed in their heart say, 'Why pay the state? Pay me $10,000, and I'll do a bargain-basement hunt for you and you'll get a trophy, too,'" Goessman said.

Commercial poaching rings usually involve a group of hunters, often from other states, making arrangements with someone in Montana willing to help them find, kill and transport wildlife for a price.

Likened to organized crime

Goessman likens the poaching operations to organized crime: The groups, small enough to avoid easy detection unless a member talks, usually have six to 12 people, complete with leaders and underlings.

Frequently, the search is for trophy-caliber big game from which only the head and horns are kept. The rest of the carcass may be left to rot in the field. That is a crime in Montana - potentially a felony if it involves several animals.

Landowners, rogue outfitters and taxidermists, along with local knowledgeable hunters, are paid to get poachers on private property, scout big game and obtain a Montana hunting license illegally for a customer. Much of the activity occurs during the regular hunting season when poachers can more easily blend in with legitimate sportsmen, officials say.

In Ruiz's case, court records show that he received $275 from one of the undercover wardens in exchange for taking them on a duck-hunting trip north of Missoula. He also had a friend working in a Missoula sporting goods store sell him less-expensive Montana resident licenses, although the undercover agent carried an Iowa driver's license.

Ruiz has since been convicted on a host of related charges, including outfitting without a license, possessing an illegally killed deer and fish, possessing too many birds, and helping someone obtain a resident license illegally. He pleaded guilty to two counts of outfitting without a license and has appealed his other convictions.

District Judge James Haynes of Hamilton scolded Ruiz at his January sentencing. Despite a college education in forestry, resource conservation and wildlife biology, Ruiz "disregarded everything he learned about proper conservation and wildlife biology," the judge said.

Ruiz declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

In the case of the Saco landowner, seven people were charged with such crimes as outfitting and hunting without a license, illegal transportation of game, and using another person's license. The investigation continues into the Wibaux case, authorities said.

Catching the culprits

One of the best tools the state fish and game agency has is a covert unit to try infiltrating poaching rings, Kropp said. But authorities also rely heavily on the eyes and ears of ordinary citizens, sportsmen, landowners, outfitters and taxidermists for tips, he said.

"There's enough of this going on that we can't keep up," he said. "But we owe it to the citizens of this state and the sportsmen of this state to try."

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