Jeff Fleming wishes he could take back the most expensive three seconds of his life.
On Oct. 28, the Kalispell hunter was convicted by Thompson Falls Justice of the Peace Donald M. Strine of illegally killing two bighorn sheep during a hunting trip in the Knowles Creek area. He says that it was an honest mistake, but one that still wound up costing him more than $32,000 in fines after he self-reported the incident.
“Nobody draws a sheep tag you waited 30 years for and ends up killing three animals intentionally,” Fleming said in an interview Monday.
On Oct. 28, Fleming was tracking a herd of bighorn sheep at Knowles Creek with his friend and a fellow Kalispell hunter, Brad Borden, when he sighted on a trophy ram.
“I took a shot at my ram, but as soon as I shot that ram, I didn’t know it at the time, it fell into a depression where I couldn’t see it,” Fleming said. He reloaded, peered back through his scope and saw what appeared to be the same animal. “I’m sure he’s wounded, so I shoot him again. When I walked up the hill, I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see three bighorn sheep lying there.”
The second bullet had passed through the second ram and struck an ewe standing in the brush behind it, killing it with a shot to the throat.
Borden then called the game warden, who upon investigating the scene, told the two men that the evidence appeared to corroborate their story. Fleming said the warden even helped the hunters pack out the meat, allowing him to keep the first ram.
“He told me, ‘I gotta charge you for taking a ram, but I can’t charge you for taking an ewe’”, Fleming recalled. “I just thought I was going to pay a fine. I never thought I’d lose my license.”
Fleming pleaded guilty to the offenses. As restitution to the state, he must pay $30,000 for the second ram and $2,000 for the ewe, in addition to a $735 fine for hunting over the limit. He also lost his hunting, trapping and fishing privileges for 30 months.
Judge Strine said in an interview with the Daily Inter Lake that although the game warden corroborated Fleming’s account of the sheep killings, the law gives him no leeway on restitution for those convicted of illegally harvesting animals.
“The law says ‘shall,’ not ‘may,’ so that pretty much takes the discretion away from the judge,” Strine said. But he added that he could have suspended Fleming’s sportsman privileges for considerably longer than he did.
Strine also said he allowed Fleming to make the payments in installments, citing the accidental nature of the crime.
RELYING ON information from a story in the Sanders County Ledger, a Daily Inter Lake news brief in its Monday “Regional Roundup” referred to Fleming as “poacher,” which he said compounded his poor luck by tarnishing his reputation in his home town.
“Poaching” is not legally defined under Montana law, and is instead a more generalized term. Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden Capt. Lee Anderson said he typically reserves the word for those who illegally kill wildlife with intent.
“I generally only use the term for folks that do it purposefully and knowingly,” Anderson said. “... We try to work with guys as much as we can, and then it’s up to the judge to decide what kind of penalty he wants to levy.”
Ultimately, Strine said the responsibility rests with Fleming, regardless of whether the circumstances were unfortunate.
“If you’re gonna go out in the woods with a rifle, you better know the law and what you’re going to shoot at, and what you’re not going to shoot at,” Strine said.
While Fleming disagreed with the charges, he said he appreciated the warden’s credulity after Borden called in the incident. Still, he feels that a judge should have some leeway when sentencing someone who had no intention to break the law.
“As a hunter, there should be an incentive for every hunter to do the right thing and the honest thing, which is to report yourself,” he said. “They shouldn’t throw the book at an honest hunter. I’ve never had a hunting violation in my life and I’ve never had a criminal history.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.