Saco family sentenced in illegal hunting scheme
August 20, 2009
Three members of a north-central Montana ranch family have been fined and given probationary sentences for their roles in a wildlife poaching scheme involving 61 illegal hunts over five years. U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom on Wednesday placed Leo Bergtoll, 74, on federal probation for three years, while his son, Darrel Bergtoll, 44, was sentenced to three years and four months of probation. Both were ordered to provide hunting on their land for the Wounded Warriors Project for injured veterans for three years and to enroll their property in the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Park's block management program for five years. The program allows the state to lease private lands for public hunting; however, the Bergtolls will not be paid. Anna Lou Bergtoll, 69, was sentenced to two years of federal probation and, along with her husband, Leo, lost her hunting and fishing privileges for five years. All three were fined $15,000. The Bergtolls were accused of running a high-volume, big game hunting operation based on the fraudulent use of state Fish, Wildlife & Parks landOwner-sponsored licensing program. They pleaded guilty in February to violating the Lacey Act, which regulates the interstate sale, transportation and purchase of wildlife. Leo Bergtoll pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy count while his wife and son each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count. Shanstrom determined that the Bergtolls conducted 61 illegal hunts from 1999 to 2003, collecting at least a quarter million dollars in fees. Co-defendant Anthony Bazile, 61, of Braithwaite, La., also pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act. Bazile, who is believed to have made about $119,000 in profit for booking hunts, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 9. The landowner-sponsored licensing program was designed to allow property owners who are Montana residents to let a limited number of people hunt on their private land. Quotas are placed on the number of licenses sold. Prosecutors say the Bergtolls and Bazile devised a scheme to charge out-of-state hunters for applying for the licenses as well as outfitting fees. The hunters, mainly from Louisiana, Texas and Alabama, were provided with room, board and baited hunting blinds, investigators said. If their out-of-state clients didn't obtain licenses, they were still encouraged to come to the property to hunt. Prosecutors say the Bergtolls sold their personal hunting licenses and those of their employees to clients. In addition to Bazile and the Bergtolls, a total of 45 client-hunters were convicted on state charges and fined a total of $25,000, FWP officials said. Three elk, 31 white-tailed deer and 10 mule deer were seized during the investigation, which started after game wardens received tips from other hunters and landowners. "These criminal sentences mark the end of a long era of abuse by these defendants, as well as the prolonged theft of Montana's wildlife resources, which belongs to every citizen, not just a select few who want to profit from it," said FWP Region 6 Warden Capt. Mike Herman, the lead investigator in the case.