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MT: Saco ranch family members admit to hunting scheme

February 06, 2009

Saco ranch family members admit to hunting scheme

Three members of a Hi-Line family admitted Thursday that they ran an illegal hunting operation that brought in nonresident hunters who paid thousands of dollars to shoot big game on their ranch near Saco.

The scheme ran for five years, until investigators with the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks learned of it in 2003, federal prosecutors said. Investigators have since fined and seized mounts of poached animals from dozens of clients who participated in the illegal hunts.

In the fall of 2003, 10 whitetail and mule deer bucks were killed on the ranch by nonresident hunters who didn't have valid licenses.

Leo O. Bergtoll, 74, his wife, Anna Lou L. Bergtoll, 68, and their son, Darrel L. Bergtoll, 44, pleaded guilty to federal charges during their first appearance in U.S. District Court in Billings. A fourth defendant, Anthony J. Bazile, 60, of Braithwaite, La., was indicted separately, has pleaded not guilty and is set for trial April 6.

Leo Bergtoll pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which regulates the sale, transportation and purchase of wildlife. Anna Lou Bergtoll and Darrel Bergtoll each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act.

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Anderson of Missoula said in court documents that the Bergtolls worked with Bazile, a longtime associate, to run a hunting business on their cattle ranch, the Frenchman Valley Ranch.

Bazile recruited clients for weeklong hunting trips in which he charged $800 a person to apply for a Montana landowner-sponsored buck deer license. Bazile would forward the client's name and application fee of $300 to Anna Lou Bergtoll and pocket the rest. Anna Lou Bergtoll would submit the client's name for the license drawing. Darrel Bergtoll, who owns a separate parcel of land nearby, also would submit clients' names from Bazile for licenses on his property, even though the clients hunted on his parents' ranch.

If clients failed to draw a license, Bazile urged them to come to Montana anyway and assured them that they would get licenses, Anderson said. The clients each paid another $1,200 outfitting fee when they arrived at the ranch.

Meanwhile, the Bergtolls got resident hunting licenses and asked other family members and hired hands to do the same. Leo and Anna Lou Bergtoll would buy the resident licenses from their employees for $100 and resell them to the nonresident hunters, who used them to tag animals they shot.

Trophy parts of illegally killed animals were sent to a nearby taxidermist for mounting or were sometimes taken home by the clients.

The Frenchman Valley Ranch had about 20 permanent wooden hunting blinds, a bunkhouse for clients and vehicles for Bazile and clients. Bazile cooked for the clients and told them which blinds to use. As payment for his "client wrangling" services, he kept at least one $1,200 hunting fee each season, Anderson said.

Leo Bergtoll faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy count, while his wife and son face a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine on the misdemeanor.

U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Ostby continued their release without bond.

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