Poaching Case Crosses State Lines

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A simple phone call from a concerned sportsmen about illegal hunting activity occurring in Idaho's Lewis County, led to a nine month cooperative investigation involving the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the British Columbia Conservation Service (BCCS), resulting in three felony and 23 misdemeanor charges against six individuals from Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Charges in Lewis County have been brought forward or still pending against: Chris Witt, 32, and Bill Witt, 57, Battleground, WA; Bradley Zenner, 45, Nez Perce, ID; Brian Shepherd, 30, Terrebonne, OR; Brian Lemaster, 31, and Terrance Wallingford, 34, Vancouver, WA.

Animals allegedly taken illegally include multiple elk, mule deer, pheasant, turkey and black bear, mostly from big game management unit 11A. Charges include exceeding the bag limit for big game, using/and transferring big game tags of another hunter, taking big game in a controlled hunt area without proper tags, possessing game taken unlawfully and unlawful bear baits.

The concerned sportsman reported that the alleged illegal hunting activity occurred over several years on private land leased by the Witts near Nez Perce, Idaho. The Witts recruited and sold four-year memberships to a hunting club for $5000 per individual to hunt whitetail and mule deer, elk, bear, mountain lion and turkey. Investigators found that Bill and Chris Witt recruited individuals to hunt in Idaho while acting as fishing guides on the Columbia River in Western Washington. Potential clients were told they could kill two elk and two deer each year, as well as multitude of other species.

Undercover officers from IDFG contacted and fished with the Witts in Washington to learn more about the illegal hunting activity in Idaho. During this contact, Chris Witt operated his boat illegally because his Captain's license had been revoked by the U.S. Coast Guard for drug violations. Undercover officers also corroborated the Idaho violations, witnessed fishing violations in Washington and were offered an illegal, unlicensed guided trip for salmon in British Columbia.

BCCS was then contacted and an undercover investigation was done in British Columbia. On July 27, 2004, the BCCS arrested Chris and Bill Witt for illegal guiding. Each was charged with six counts of illegal guiding, false statement and obstruction. The Witt's truck, jet boat, and fishing gear with a Canadian value of $100,000 were seized. The Witt's had signed paperwork at the US/Canada border swearing that they would not be guiding in Canada. Sentencing is pending with the return of equipment unlikely.

On the same day, WDFW conducted search warrants at Witt's residence in Battleground, Washington, and their taxidermist, seizing several trophy animals related to the violations occurring in Idaho. Investigators from both Idaho and Washington conducted numerous follow-up interviews with individuals associated with the Witts. From statements made and evidence seized, it became clear that there was a pattern of intentional poaching occurring for many years in Idaho.

"The Witts motivation for abusing the wildlife resource was for money and ego," said Clay Cummins, IDFG Assistant Enforcement Bureau Chief. "Their actions showed a total disregard for the wildlife resource and laws, whether it be hunting or fishing."

But prosecuting flagrant law violators can be a challenge. According to Cummins, it is common in undercover investigations such as this, that a pattern of flagrant abuse of wildlife laws occurs for many years, but sometimes the worst violations detected can not be charged because of Idaho's short statute of limitations law.

"We learned of other violations including multiple over-limits of whitetail deer in 2000, but couldn't charge due to statute of limitation problems," Cummins said. "We need an increased statute of limitations law, like a five-year statute, to be able to allow prosecution of flagrant, habitual violators to the fullest extent," Cummins said.

Another challenge is deterring would-be violators. Judges impose fines, loss of hunting and fishing privileges and possible jail time to punish violators, but some feel the punishments are not severe enough to make an impact on poaching. Cummins thinks a significant deterrent to wildlife crime would be the forfeiture of equipment used in flagrant wildlife crimes.

"A good example would be what British Columbia did by seizing the Witts' $100,000 truck, jet boat and equipment," Cummins said. "If you are making a living off the illegal take of wildlife, you should be prepared to lose the equipment that enables you to poach - whether it's a plane, truck, boat or whatever else. At the very least, give the prosecutor and judge the option to pursue and impose appropriate sentences on the worst violators."

Cummins is thankful for the tip from the concerned sportsman and the help of fellow officers. "Without the tip and the teamwork from Washington and British Columbia, these guys would have gotten away with these crimes," Cummins said. "I know that the honest sportsman will be happy and excited that wildlife investigators are sharing intelligence and assisting each other in targeting these types of wildlife thieves."

The public can help solve wildlife crimes by reporting to any law enforcement authority or by calling the Citizens Against Poaching (CAP) hotline at 1-800-632-5999.