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Bighorn ram battle

From left, James Reed, Blake Trangmoe and John Lewton pose after Warden Justin Gibson shot this Missouri River Breaks bighorn ram during an undercover sting operation.

Although the state of Montana has struck out in three separate prosecutions in a 2008 illegal outfitting case, the attorney general’s office will still go to bat one more time in March.

James Reed of Rexburg, Idaho, is the last defendant remaining to be tried in a 2008 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks undercover sting operation. Reed’s case goes to trial in Chouteau County Justice Court in Fort Benton on March 8.

Reed, director of sales and licensing for Sports Afield magazine, was initially charged with two misdemeanor counts of hunting without landowner permission, one count of outfitting without a license and one felony count of unlawful possession of a game animal for taking part in the hunt. Those charges have now been amended to one misdemeanor count of illegally using a two-way radio during the hunt.

Charging documents say Reed used a walkie-talkie from a vantage point in the Missouri River Breaks to guide undercover warden Justin Gibson to a trophy bighorn ram that was eventually shot by Gibson in September 2008.

So far, though, the state has been unable to make its charges stick.

The third and latest not-guilty verdict in the case came in the November trial of Blake Trangmoe, a Glendive-area rancher and Alaska hunting outfitter. Trangmoe had been charged with hunting without landowner permission and illegal use of a two-way radio by accountability in the hunting of the bighorn ram. A Chouteau County jury found him not guilty. His charges had also been amended from the initial filings, which included a felony count.

Trangmoe said the charges kept him from booking $500,000 worth of hunts in Alaska for the past three years and cost him $42,000 in legal fees to fight the $500 fine associated with the misdemeanor charge.

“They were going after our livelihood,” Trangmoe said. “We had no other choice but to fight them all the way.”

If Trangmoe had lost the case, he would have also lost his hunting privileges in Montana and his guide’s license in Alaska, he said.

Some history

The bighorn ram at the center of the charges was shot by FWP warden Justin Gibson while he was hunting under an alias in an undercover operation targeting Whitehall filmmaker and taxidermist John Lewton. Lewton, who has filmed bighorn sheep hunts across Montana, was being investigated for illegal outfitting. FWP charged that he was guiding hunters to the rams that were shot as the hunts were filmed.

In two separate jury trials in 2010 — one in Chouteau and one in Jefferson county — Lewton was found not guilty of illegal outfitting and not guilty of the illegal purchase of the bighorn ram’s head and horns from Gibson for $5,000.

Lewton and Trangmoe’s Whitehall attorney, Jack Morris, said the three not-guilty verdicts “speak for themselves.”

Public weighed in

The initial FWP investigation generated a firestorm of public complaints targeted at the agency for giving one of the state’s hard-to-draw bighorn ram tags to a warden who was undercover. Warden Gibson eventually shot the ram after twice purposefully missing. When later measured, the ram’s horns reportedly set a new state record, scoring more than 204 points under the Boone and Crockett measuring system. The state record bighorn sheep measured 204 7/8 inches and was shot in 1993.

As proof of how hard a bighorn sheep tag is to draw, in 2009 — the latest year in which drawing statistics were available online — almost 24,000 hunters applied for bighorn sheep tags and only 515 were successful — or less than 3 percent.

Lewton has filed a civil lawsuit in Lewis and Clark County District Court against FWP to force the agency to return the bighorn sheep head, cape and horns that he purchased from Gibson, claiming that they were legally bought.

“We believe we have an enforceable civil contract,” Morris said.

Lewton’s legal troubles continued in May when he was found guilty in U.S. District Court in Great Falls of filming a bighorn sheep hunt on national forest land in the Rock Creek drainage near Missoula without a permit. During sentencing in July he was fined $5,000, $2,000 of which was deferred, given one year of probation and is not allowed to film on federal government land. Morris said the ruling is being appealed, arguing that no filming was done, only still photos were taken.

Morris pointed to a similar case in which the filmmaker for a program on the state’s game wardens was fined for not having permits on federal lands.

“He got off with a ($1,050) fine for two counts,” Morris said. “I don’t think they mete out justice the same.”

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