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Lion poaching case along Utah-Colorado border 'most egregious' state wildlife investigator has seen

DENVER — A veteran Utah wildlife investigator describes the illegal maiming and killing of 30 bobcats and mountain lions along the Utah-Colorado border as the "most egregious" case he has encountered in his 17-year career.

The mountain lions and bobcats were illegally captured and maimed to make it easier for clients of a Colorado-based hunting guide to kill them, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A joint investigation by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the federal wildlife agency uncovered approximately 18 clients since 2004 who had taken part in the illegal killing of mountain lions and bobcats.

A federal judge recently sentenced the last of five defendants involved in the poaching scheme, which closed the case, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said.

"As far as taking the time and the manpower to put together a case like this, it’s been the most egregious protected wildlife case I’ve been involved with or heard of, really," said Wade Hovinga, investigator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources statewide investigation unit.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bobcats and lions killed in Utah were sneaked over the state line.

Many of the hunters "did not have the required tags or licenses to take mountain lions or bobcats in Utah, completing federal violations when unlawfully killed cats were transported across state lines," according to a news release from the federal wildlife agency.

Many of the guided hunts took place in the rugged Bookcliffs Mountains, which span the Colorado-Utah border north and west of Grand Junction, Colorado.

Loncarich Guides and Outfitters devised a scheme in which mountain lions and bobcats would be located prior to their clients' arrivals, investigators said.

"Methods of 'shortening' the illegal take included trapping and holding the cats in cages prior to the arrival of the client and then releasing the animals when the client was present, as well as shooting the cats in the paws, stomach, and/or legs or attaching leg-hold traps to them prior to the client arriving on scene," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The investigation revealed that hunting guides would use a telescoping pole onto which a large trap had been attached, Hovinga said. The guides would tree a cat, snap the trap on the end of its paw and leave the cat.

"Of course, the cat can’t get very far with that big trap attached to it," he said.

Then they would call clients, encourage them to travel western Colorado immediately, telling them that they had been able to track a bobcat or mountain lion.

"They’d fly out and they’d go up there, and (the guides) would put on quite a show as far as finding tracks and turning their dogs loose. The cat would be obviously not far from where they left it the previous day or days. Before the hunter got to a cat after he shot it, they would remove the trap and hide it," Hovinga said.

The investigation revealed that hunters would pay up to $7,500 per mountain lion hunt. On some occasions, successful lion hunters were also offered a bobcat hunt for an additional $1,500, Hovinga said.

Investigators found evidence that in those hunts, bobcats were trapped, held in cages and released prior to clients' hunts.

"There’s just no sporting or sportsmen involved in this process. It was completely a commercial event to make money," Hovinga said.

In January 2014, a federal grand jury in Colorado returned a 17-count indictment charging Christopher Loncarich of Mack, Colorado, and his employee, Nicholaus Rodgers of Medford, Oregon, with illegally capturing and maiming mountain lions and bobcats to make hunting the cats easier for paying clients. Loncarich was a big game outfitter and hunting guide who owned Loncarich Guides and Outfitters.

Rodgers was sentenced to six months home confinement, a $5,000 fine, 50 hours of community service and three years' probation for conspiring to violate the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law. During his probation, he is prohibited from hunting or fishing.

"Rodgers admitted to personally assisting clients in unlawfully killing 11 mountain lions and five bobcats during the course of the conspiracy," a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services news release said.

Loncarich was sentenced in November for conspiring to violate the Lacey Act. He received 27 months in prison and three years of probation, during which he cannot fish or hunt. He also was ordered to undergo mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Special Agent in Charge Steve Oberholtzer, who oversees Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement operations in the Mountain-Prairie region, said the violations committed by Christopher Loncarich and Rodgers appeared to be the result of greed, unlawfully killing and maiming wildlife to increase his profits.

"The dedication and expertise of the state and federal investigators and prosecuting attorneys in bringing these persons to justice was outstanding. These convictions send a clear message that unlawful commercialization of wildlife will not be tolerated," Oberholtzer said.

Caitlin Loncarich and Andie Loncarich, Christopher Loncarich's daughters, pleaded guilty in September to misdemeanor violations of the Lacey Act and were sentenced to one year of probation each, fines and community service, much of it to be served with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hunter Education program.

Assistant guide Marvin Ellis, previously pleaded guilty to violations of the Lacey Act or conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act.

On June 3, 2013, Ellis was sentenced to three years of probation, six months of home detention and ordered to pay a $3,100 fine.

Christopher Loncarich’s 2008 Ford truck and Ellis’ 1995 Dodge truck were seized during the investigation and found by a federal judge to have been used in the commission of Lacey Act violations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Both vehicles were subsequently forfeited to the government.

Three hunting clients were issued federal notices for violations of the Lacey Act. Those clients have paid a total of $13,100 in fines.

"I think Utah is pretty astonished by this case and pretty proud of it because it’s such a brazen way to commercialize wildlife and make money and how methodical they were about how they did this. It’s just incredible," Hovinga said of the outcome.

He said the case was particularly gratifying because of the joint investigation among Utah and Colorado wildlife agencies and the federal government.

"This was a physically demanding two years we worked on this, establishing exactly what was happening and retrieving the data we needed to prove it," he said.

But Hovinga said it was gratifying work because it's the sort of conduct that "makes people mad.

"It’s not what hunting is about. It’s a good case."