HAMILTON — In what’s being called one of the largest illegal bear cases in state history, three Ravalli County men have been charged with illegally killing at least nine black bears with the aid of bait.
One of the three men appeared Wednesday before Ravalli County Justice of the Peace Jim Bailey. The other two men will appear later this month.
In a letter to the judge, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Lou Royce said the bears were killed in Ravalli and Beaverhead counties starting in 2009.
“The meat from all but two of the bears was wasted,” Royce’s letter said. “It appears that these bears were strictly killed for hide and skulls.”
The men would often move the bears to another location and report a false kill site in case wardens asked to return to the location of the kill.
James “Jimmy” Harrison, 61, of Darby, was the “ringleader” who allegedly placed all the bait on both public and private lands, Royce’s letter said. The bait included dead cattle and bait barrels.
Harrison killed three bears over bait since 2009. He faces 10 misdemeanor charges, with a total bond of $6,550. He could be required to pay a total of $4,000 in restitution in Ravalli County.
In Beaverhead County, Harrison faces fines of $2,465 for seven violations.
Harrison has yet to appear on the charges in Ravalli County.
Richard Sublette, James “Jimmy” Harrison 56, of Hamilton, appeared Wednesday in justice court on six misdemeanor counts. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
If found guilty and the judge requires Sublette to pay the full bond amount, he will owe $3,210, plus a potential $2,000 in restitution.
Sublette is charged with killing one bear each in Ravalli and Beaverhead counties.
Sublette faces $590 in fines for two violations that occurred in Beaverhead County.
Kyle L. Whyard, 26, of Darby, faces six misdemeanor charges with a bond of $3,210. Whyard could be required to pay $2,000 in restitution.
Whyard also faces $925 in fines for three violations he allegedly committed in Beaverhead County.
Whyard is also charged with illegally killing a bear in both Ravalli and Beaverhead counties.
Royce’s letter said the men were somewhat cooperative in the later stages of the investigation. In return for that cooperation, the wardens opted not to pursue felony charges in the case.
“We could have charged several of these violations as felonies,” Royce’s letter said. “In total, there were dozens of other misdemeanor charges that we decided not to file as well.”
The letter said the men admitted they knew their actions were illegal in Montana.
“These bears died because these men wanted to kill trophy animals in the easiest way possible,” Royce’s letter read. “They also did not consume the meat from most of the bears, but simply dumped the carcasses in the forest.
“These bears were stolen from the people of Montana. Every one of them was a large adult bear that would represent a trophy of a lifetime for a lawful hunter, plus meat in the freezer.”
Royce recommended that Harrison lose his privileges to hunt, fish or trap for at least 10 years. He recommended the other two men lose their privileges for five years.
“This is one of the biggest illegal bear cases in state history. Certainly, it is one of the biggest cases that I have ever investigated,” Royce wrote. “This represents a substantial loss of natural resources to the people of Montana.”