A controversial undercover wildlife investigation that snared three men has ended after more than three years.
Earlier this month, the state Attorney General's Office had its motion granted to dismiss its case against the last man charged in a bighorn sheep hunting sting in 2008 in the Missouri Breaks.
The motion, filed in Chouteau County Justice Court, asked for the dismissal of a charge against James Reed, of Rexburg, Idaho, for illegally using two-way communication while hunting, a misdemeanor. The case was to have gone to trial on March 8.
"There does come a time, unrelated to the facts of the case, that any more expenditure of resources is not well advised," said Barbara Harris, state assistant attorney general.
Justice of the Peace Sharon Spencer granted the motion Feb. 10.
Two other Montanans charged in the investigation were acquitted in their three jury trials.
Happy but dismayed
Reed was relieved to have the charges dropped but said he has been scarred emotionally, professionally and financially.
"I think the three acquittals and dismissal hopefully speaks volumes to our innocence and restores our reputations," Reed said.
He said he spent about $45,000 defending himself -- money that was drawn from a retirement account at a penalty.
"I think the Attorney General's Office was irresponsible for letting it carry on as long as it did," he added.
Reed's attorney, Jack Morris of Whitehall, was more blunt.
Morris wrote in an email: "Wow, it took the state of Montana this long to finally come to its senses, after three separate jury trials and three separate acquittals and the untold cost to the taxpayers of Montana, so that the state of Montana could attempt to save face and pursue claims that had no merit?"
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.
Charging documents say Reed used a walkie-talkie from a vantage point in the Missouri River Breaks to guide undercover FWP warden Justin Gibson to the bighorn ram that was eventually shot.
Reed denied all of the charges and said he was simply helping a friend.
At first, the case involved a multitude of other charges. Whitehall filmmaker and taxidermist John Lewton, the main target of the sting, was cleared at two jury trials in 2010 -- one in Chouteau County 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 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.
Blake Trangmoe, a Glendive-area rancher and Alaska hunting outfitter, was charged with hunting without landowner permission and illegal use of a two-way radio by accountability. A Chouteau County jury found him not guilty in November. 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.
The case drew so much attention because during the sting operation, Gibson shot what is reportedly a record-book 204-inch ram after twice missing on purpose.
The state issues few bighorn sheep tags for rams. In the Missouri Breaks, less than 2 percent of the hunters who apply are awarded a tag. The fact that a warden shot a record-book ram while working undercover sparked protests from hunters, some of whom had applied for such a tag for years without ever getting one.
For the jurors, Harris, the assistant attorney general, speculated that killing the animal may have hurt the state's case, despite the other evidence against the defendants.
"They either don't care to side with the state where they believe maybe the undercover warden shouldn't have or didn't need to shoot the ram," she said.
She also said jurors may have believed that FWP has "too much power and it diverts them from the issue" of what the people did wrong. Harris added that there was nothing wrong with Fish, Wildlife and Parks' investigation.
The defendants and their attorney see it differently.
"The question now is how do these three men get their reputations back and will the state of Montana finally give Mr. Lewton back his bighorn sheep?" wrote Morris, the attorney who represented the three.
Reed said it's a shame that the state spent so much investigating and prosecuting the men.
"It was such a big story that the people of Montana need to know what a waste of resources this was," he said.