Wisconsin-Montana poaching scheme exposed
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: April 7, 2019

Poacher pictured with illegally killed mountain lion (left) and taxidermied bobcat and mountain lion (right). Photos by USFWS.

 

By the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, April 2, 2019

Quality hunting opportunities are an important part of the American conservation legacy. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with our state counterparts, provide the sound science that supports healthy wildlife populations and also fight poaching and other kinds of wildlife crime to keep hunting viable now and into the future. Learn more about one recent investigation that put an end to a poaching scheme in Wisconsin.

Four long-time hound hunters who had enjoyed decades of running their dogs in pursuit of bear, mountain lion, bobcat and other wildlife are now branded as poachers and have lost their hunting privileges worldwide, some for up to four years. While these species are legal in many instances to hunt within state and tribal hunting regulations, these bad actors stepped outside the bounds of legal hunting. Crossing that line does a disservice to hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike.

United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin Scott C. Blader announced on February 26, 2019 that four Wisconsin men were convicted of crimes related to an illegal mountain lion hunt in Montana and conspiring to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation into their crimes. The violators were Darren Johnson, age 52 of Deer Park; David Johnson, age 31 of Barnes (no relation); Robert Peters, age 53 of Turtle Lake and Steven Reindahl, age 55 of Turtle Lake.

The subjects were all charged with Lacey Act violations in addition to other charges. The Lacey Act was applied in this case because the violators broke existing state laws and crossed from one state to another with their illegal bounty.

When the Lacey Act was passed by Congress in 1900, it became the first federal law to protect wildlife. More than 100 years later, it still imposes civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants. Today, it also regulates the import of any species protected by international or domestic law and prevents the spread of invasive species. By enforcing this law, we help ensure sustainable wildlife populations for ethical hunters.

These convictions stem back to a mountain lion hunt in Montana on January 6, 2017. Darren, David, Robert and Steven were in Mosby, Montana hunting mountain lions with their dogs. That morning, the dogs treed a mountain lion and while Darren and Steven had valid licenses to hunt mountain lions, David did not.

David used Darren’s rifle to shoot and kill the mountain lion – this was his first misstep. Darren tagged the mountain lion after David shot it without a permit. According to witness testimony, Darren told the group at the time that everyone needed to stick to the story that he killed the mountain lion. On January 10, 2017 everyone drove back from Montana to Wisconsin, with Darren and Steven transporting the mountain lion hide. A few days later, Darren dropped off the hide at David’s home.

As the joint investigation into this illegal hunt began to wrap up in May 2018, Robert and Steven were served with grand jury subpoenas to testify before a Madison-based federal grand jury on June 21, 2018. On June 17, 2018, the group made another misstep at Darren’s direction.

Darren, David and Steven met with Robert at his home to talk about the upcoming grand jury session and solidify a plan for covering up their illegal take. Darren reminded everyone to stick to the story that he killed the mountain lion on their January hunt in Montana, thinking that agents had no proof to say otherwise. This became their undoing, making their failed ruse fuel for even more charges in federal court.

On June 21, 2018, Robert and Steven appeared before the grand jury and perjured themselves, then later agreed to cooperate and tell the truth. Recanting their prior testimony, both men explained that they were told by Darren to lie in front of the grand jury.

That lie and the failed cover up cost Robert and Steven two years of probation, fines of $5,000 each and, as a condition of probation, a ban on hunting, trapping, running dogs or assisting and/or accompanying others who are engaged in hunting, trapping or running dogs worldwide for two years.

Magistrate Judge Stephen L. Crocker sentenced David to pay $25,000 in fines and serve a three-year term of probation. As the leader of this scheme, Darren was ordered to pay $30,000 in fines and serve a four-year term of probation. As a condition of probation, they also lost the privilege to hunt, trap, run dogs or assist and/or accompany others engaged in hunting, trapping or running dogs worldwide.

All fines were due and paid immediately at the time of the announcement. Darren and David’s fines were paid directly to the Lacey Act Reward Fund, which is used to reward those who provide information about wildlife crimes and to help offset the costs incurred in caring for fish, wildlife or plants that are being held as evidence in ongoing investigations.

In imposing the sentences, Judge Crocker observed that these four men “loved and lived to hunt, but they cut corners and cheated. They broke the law knowingly.” Addressing the men in court, Judge Crocker said, “these types of cases are important. Hunting is a privilege not a right. The rules apply to everyone. You cannot cheat.”

On top of these sentences, Judge Crocker also ordered three of the defendants to forfeit gear and equipment used during the illegal hunt. Robert was ordered to forfeit a Browning A-Bolt rifle and a hide from a bobcat he illegally killed in Montana during the January 2017 hunt. David was ordered to forfeit a Garmin Astro 320 Receiver, three Garmin dog collars, 10-30×50 Zoom Binoculars, a Remington 870 Super Mag 12 gauge shotgun and a mountain lion hide. Darren was ordered to forfeit a 2012 Ford F-250 pickup truck, a Savage Model 11 .223 rifle with Konus 3-9×40 scope, a Garmin Astro 320 receiver, three Garmin Dog Collars, Nikon 10×42 binoculars, a Uniden UKM380 VHF radio, a mountain lion and bobcat mount.  In addition to this, the investigation also documented Darren being involved in the illegal take of a mountain lion in Colorado in 2013. The court also ordered the forfeiture of the skull from the mountain lion taken during that illegal hunt.

The charges against these men were the result of an investigation conducted by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Law Enforcement and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The prosecution of the case was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel J. Graber.