More than $72,000 in fines has been collected so far from suspects who unlawfully took game animals at two Pony ranches between 2003 and 2010. They all lost hunting privileges as well for 18-24 months.
“There were hundreds of hunters and we will never know how many animals were actually taken,” FWP Warden Ryan Gosse said.
Dubbed Operation Trails End by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state agency recently closed a multi-year investigation into illegal activity at the Trails End and Hollowtop Ranches near Pony. Edward and Sharon Wachs of Illinois formally owned both ranches.
While they could have been charged with felonies, the Wachs and twenty-four other individuals were charged with various misdemeanor offenses including: license fraud-residency violations, hunting without a license, unlawful possession of a game animal, fishing without a license, transfer of a hunting license, use of a license from another district, and violation of rules and regulations.
Gosse made contact with a hunting party leaving one of Wachs’ ranches in 2008. Both ranches are tucked away in the hills near Pony and border National Forest land. Gosse said FWP suspected something was wrong at Wachs’ ranches prior to his field contact, but had no knowledge or clear proof. He said neighbors couldn’t put a finger on what was going on at the ranches either.
Upon meeting the group, Gosse noted that something was wrong with their licenses, including one in the name of the Wachs’s employee from Illinois who was serving as the group’s guide. Two months later, one member of that group called the FWP tip line and reported that they had indeed been hunting antlered animals with no license to do so. Being involved in an illegal hunt did not sit well with that individual, according to Gosse.
Gosse estimates that the illegal hunting goes back 10 to 15 years.
FWP discovered that Wachs, owner of industrial pipe companies, invited business associates to visit Montana multiple times each year to hunt on his ranches using “ranch tags.” Gosse said no such kind of tag is allowed or exists. A Wachs employee, Josh Armstrong, sent out electronic invitations and when the would-be-hunters arrived at the ranch they were taken to purchase one antlerless whitetail license apiece at the now defunct D&J Grocery. FWP generated a long list of suspects from license registration history at the store and in the area.
“We sat on it and watched activity at the ranches for a number of years until we had enough to start an investigation,” Gosse said.
In September of 2010, FWP received a break in the case when a taxidermist in Big Timber contacted the agency to report suspicious tags on antlered animals brought to his shop. According to Gosse, James Butts III of New York had shot a bull elk and buck deer on Wachs’ property, but the tags on the animals were not his. Butts and two of his family members all cooperated in the investigation.
Gosse and FWP Regional Investigator Chad Murphy soon learned that Wachs’ ranch manager Tim Stephens, under Wachs’ direction, provided the hunters with ATVs, showed them around the property, provided them with places to hang, cut and store animals they killed, and would even ship antlers from the animals out of state in chandelier boxes on Wachs’ private jets that were sometimes flown by local Daniel Greydanus.
“Tim would do whatever Ed said,” Gosse said he heard from a number of suspects FWP interviewed. “Ed told the hunters that it was his property and he could do whatever he wanted with it. Tim’s a local, knew better and didn’t do anything to stop it.”
On a positive note, according to FWP the fair majority of animals taken were salvaged and the meat used. A lot of animals were laid to waste though, and their bones collected in piles. The majority of the animals taken were mule deer and whitetail. According to Gosse, Wachs, who paid for Stephens’ legal fees, and his wife Sharon illegally purchased resident hunting licenses and illegally transferred them to other individuals who not only took animals illegally but also often took more than the legal limit allowed.
Fish and game agencies in other states aided Gosse and Murphy in their investigation. The two travelled to Texas earlier this year to interview Sean Williford and recovered a trophy status whitetail from him. They also collected $17,000 in fines and restitution on the trip and a bull elk and mule deer. The money collected from the fines and raised from FWP’s annual trophy auction goes into the agency’s enforcement fund.
Gosse said FWP’s Region 3 is the busiest in the state in cases like this one due to the number of areas to hunt and number of animals in the region.
“These resources – the land and animals on it – belong to the state and the people who live here,” Gosse said. “It doesn’t matter how wealthy a person is, how much property they own or how much money they’ve donated to different foundations, everyone needs to play by the rules.”
The ranches are under new ownership. “I do not believe the new owners had anything to do with the illegal hunting,” Gosse said.