I like to hunt, and I like to fish, and I like to do them in good conscience. This means, first and foremost, that I do my best to obey the rule of law, toe the line in the interests of, among other things, preserving the resource. As a hunter and fisherman, I want people to think well of me. I bristle at stereotypes, I wince at photos of 300 pound rednecks on ATVs proudly holding up forkhorns they shot under a jacklight. Aware of the public relations disaster that is too often the image of hunters viz the city folk, I dig it when the bad guys get their comeuppance.
I should be pleased, then, to see a few more ne’er-do-wells taken off the playing field in Montana.
Charges were recently filed in state district court against James Reed (Rexberg, Idaho), Blake Trangmoe (Glendive) and John Lewton (Whitehall). Lewton received the majority of the charges, including felony unlawful sale of a game animal, felony unlawful possession of a game animal, two misdemeanor counts of hunting without landowner permission, and a misdemeanor count of outfitting without a license.
Indeed, I should be pleased to see these guys caught. But…
Lewton and his buddies were arrested in an undercover sting operation during which an agent for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks shot and killed a bighorn sheep that scored over 204 points, Boone and Crockett. A new state record. According to recently released court documents, the undercover agent approached Lewton saying he had a bighorn sheep tag for Hunting District 680 (Montana’s Missouri River Breaks). Lewton scouted from an airplane on the agent’s behalf, used walkie-talkies during the hunt (both potentially illegal activities for which he wasn’t charged), and then, with the agent in tow, crossed private ground without permission prior to showing the agent the animal. The accused watched while the agent shot the sheep.
According to court documents, the investigation began in 2005, and was seeded in the fact that Lewton was “with a number of bighorn sheep tag holders in Montana during the last 10 to 15 years when they were hunting for bighorn sheep.” His continued proximity presumably helped arouse suspicion that he was outfitting without a license. The agent, identified in court documents only as J. G., first approached Lewton on July 29, 2008. Lewton specifically told J. G. he could not charge for helping him as Lewton was not an outfitter. He went on to say that he would be scouting and flying the area for another hunter, and could do the same for J. G. for $1,000. By my reading of the court documents, these are the only monies Lewton received prior to the shooting of the sheep.
Again according to court documents, during the hunt the men passed through a small piece of private property conspicuously marked no trespassing. Lewton asked the agent if he minded trespassing and the agent responded that he did not.
The first day of the hunt, agent J. G., shot at the ram and purposefully missed. The next day, September 19, with radio guidance by Lewton and his two companions, J. G. shot at the ram and purposefully missed again. They pursued the ram further. The ram was then “chased with two others into a steep-sided coulee.” According to documents, “It was clear that J. G. must shoot the ram, which was now in close proximity to the hunters, or reveal his true identity.”
After the hunt (in October), Lewton bought the ram from the agent for $5,000.
The prosecution, by my read, hinges on two elements. The first and apparently least in question, that Lewton (and the investigating officer) crossed private ground to reach the animal. The second, that Lewton accepted $1,000 for scouting and flying the territory. It’s questionable, to my mind, if this last constitutes “outfitting,” but he apparently did accept payment. The crossing of private ground prior to taking an animal, however, is illegal, which in turn would seem to make the taking of the animal itself illegal, leading to the other charges (unlawful possession, etc.) Given that the agent J. G. agreed to cross the private ground, he participated in the crime.
The court documents do not address the tag itself, mentioning only that the undercover agent approached Lewton saying he had a tag for district 680. Given that the chances of legitimately drawing a tag are miniscule (typically under 2 percent), it seems likely that the agent was either given a tag outside the traditional channels (depriving a Montana hunter of his own tag) or was using a fraudulent tag.
I don’t know Lewton and his cohorts, nor am I privy to all the circumstances behind the sting. (Jim Kropp, Chief of Law Enforcement for the FWP, when approached for comment, didn’t feel, and quite appropriately so, that it would be in good conscience to discuss the matter pre-trial.) It may be that Lewton has a history of wrongdoing such that the FWP wanted to prosecute him by any means possible – the equivalent of sending Al Capone up on tax evasion. But even if there are extenuating circumstances, as a sportsman in Montana, I find myself offended. As a hunter and conservationist, and according to the information I have available, I must say that the greatest wrongdoing here wasn’t committed by the folks who are being charged.
Every year, a Montana “governor’s sheep permit” is sold at auction during a banquet held by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. The permit holder is given statewide access to Montana’s bighorns. The funds generated by these auctions are earmarked for species conservation and management. This tag, given the quality of Montana’s trophy sheep hunting, regularly goes for more than $200,000. These are monies that benefit the animals, not to mention the thousands of Montana hunters who annually apply by lottery for their own sheep tag, rolling the dice for a chance at one of these huge rams. The governor’s permit for this coming fall sold for $245,000. If this year’s permit holder kills a ram that exceeds 190 points he will no doubt consider himself lucky indeed. And a 200 point ram? Among avid sheephunters, this is the equivalent of a four minute mile, it’s like winning a big election, it’s like playing the slots in Vegas and seeing the machine come up sevens. The sirens go off, the balloons come down.
To remove the emotional element (I won’t talk about the hordes of local hunters who would have given a pinky toe for even a chance at this animal), and just by crass calculation, this sting operation cost the state of Montana, and by extension our population of bighorn sheep, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. Given the money that goes into these auctioned permits, the sheep in any given area are typically scouted well before hand. The largest rams are usually known by nickname. Photos of the rams often circulate at FNAWS (Foundation for Northern American Wild Sheep), helping drive up the price of the governor’s tag at auction. If it was known that a new state record was in a given area, the tag would certainly be worth an additional . . . what, twenty-five thousand dollars? Fifty thousand? Perhaps more.
Not to diminish the crimes of Lewton and his buddies (if guilty, they should certainly be prosecuted), but by intentionally removing a significant amount of money from the state’s conservation coffers, I would argue that Montana’s FWP has stepped outside its own charter, has contradicted its own raison d’etre. They are an agency who “provides for the stewardship of the fish, wildlife, parks, and recreational resources of Montana.” By taking the largest ram from a population that has added millions of dollars to regional conservation based only on its reputation for large rams, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume they have damaged the state’s ability to manage its population of bighorn sheep. It’s hard to see how this falls under the aegis of “stewardship.” Any crimes committed or potentially committed by the guy from Whitehall would have to be serious indeed to warrant this kind of draconian enforcement.
Furthermore, I’ve always been vaguely uncomfortable with certain aspects of Montana’s undercover sting operations. On one side, there are those stings wherein game wardens place a dummy (often animatronic) game animal next to a road and then watch to see who pulls over and shoots it. It’s the equivalent of a speed trap, and nicely sifts the bad minnows from our pond. But too often the agents participate in the crime itself, as they did in this case. Soliciting potential criminals, creating a scenario such that the suspect is actively encouraged to commit a crime (allowing peer influence and cajoling to come into play, which surely rigs the board a bit), and then the undercover agent himself pulls the trigger, playing out the scenario to a believable (if, to my mind, immoral) end. I would use the word entrapment, but I’m not sure the courts would agree. Instead, I’ll just make the point that the issue is one of moral authority, and the lack of it. This might sound like a small point, but I consider it significant indeed. You have caught a criminal, but at what cost?
Consider: Implicit within this sheep scenario is the notion that the field agent is, himself, beyond the law. If I work for the Fish, Wildlife & Parks, I can apparently commit any fish and game crime I want so long as I’m doing it in order to position someone else for prosecution. I’ll commit a greater crime (taking an illegal ram) and then charge you for a lesser crime. No one should be above the law. No one should be beyond a certain kind of accountability.
But the most troublesome aspect of this scenario isn’t the financial loss, nor is it necessarily the specific wrongdoing committed by agent J. G., it’s the fact that a law enforcement agency ostensibly acting on my behalf has, to my mind, betrayed my trust. Members of law enforcement (whether FBI, state patrolmen, city cops, sheriffs, or game wardens), insofar as they are representatives of the people, insofar as they are acting not in their own interests but in ours (they are our agents), have an obligation toward a higher standard of behavior. Indeed, it’s a sacred duty. I need to know that the people who are acting with the authority of my republic are worthy of that authority. When a field agent illegally and without repercussion kills a noble animal of demonstrable value to the state, what does this say about him? What does it say about his agency?
Consider this opinion piece a call for an investigation. Either Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks needs to do some serious soul searching and rearranging of its law enforcement methods or the state Attorney General needs to do it for them. As a sportsman, as a Montana landowner and tax payer, as the public for whom these people work, I need to have my faith in Montana’s FWP restored.
Allen M. Jones is the author of, among other books, A Quiet Place of Violence: Hunting and Ethics in the Missouri River Breaks.