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
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
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
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
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
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
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."