Last fall, Jeff Fleming was facing nearly $33,000 in fines and a 30-month loss of hunting privileges — the penalties for accidentally shooting two bighorn sheep in the Knowles Creek area near Plains.
But his debt to society has now been paid with just $1,800 in fines. He also looks forward to having his license reinstated after he completes a remedial online safety course.
Judges, wildlife managers and hunters all helped change Fleming’s fortunes. The experience has bolstered his trust in Montana’s hunting regulations. Now, he’s urging his fellow hunters to follow those rules.
“In the end, the whole system worked itself out just fine,” he told the Daily Inter Lake.
Fleming’s troubles began on Oct. 28, 2016, when he and Kalispell hunter Brad Borden sighted a trophy ram.
Fleming killed it with his first shot. But from his vantage point, it appeared to still be standing. He fired again, killing a second ram – and an ewe standing behind it.
Upon realizing his mistake, the two men reported it. The game warden who responded agreed it looked like an accident.
“The charge should’ve been accidental shooting,” Fleming said.
Instead, he was charged with and pleaded guilty to illegally killing two sheep. Thompson Falls Justice of the Peace Donald M. Strine ordered him to pay the state $30,000 in restitution for the ram, $2,000 for the ewe and a $735 fine for hunting over the limit. He also lost his hunting, trapping and fishing privileges for 30 months.
At the time, Judge Strine told the Daily Inter Lake that the law gave him no leeway on restitution for those convicted of illegally harvesting animals.
But in Fleming’s view, “the punishment for an accident really has to be different than the punishment for an intentional over-the-bag-limit or anything that would be dishonest or criminal.”
The initial decision sent “the wrong message to hunters all across Montana...if you make a mistake, [if] it’s an honest accident, you really want to have the confidence to self-report.”
Lee Anderson, warden captain for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Region One, agreed.
“We really want people to report to us when they make mistakes, and I didn’t feel that it was appropriate that he got as big a penalty as he did get”
He shared that concern with Judge Strine.
“It’s a fine line when you start questioning a judge’s sentence, but this was one that I felt needed to be done.”
Eventually, Strine softened his stance.
“It was my personal belief that the restitution was too high,” he told the Daily Inter Lake. “He self-reported and made an honest mistake.”
Fleming is now free and clear after making monthly payments totalling $1,800. Strine’s successor, Judge Douglas Dryden, decided to reinstate his license pending his completion of an online hunting safety course.
That strikes Fleming as a fair outcome.
“If you made a mistake, there’s always a price to pay, but it should be reasonable.”
Judges are key in handling misfirings like Fleming’s, said Ron Jendro, the agency’s assistant chief of enforcement. “In the long run, it comes down to how that judge is going to handle it,” he told the Daily Inter Lake. He added that he and other staff discussed sentencing and penalties at a judges’ conference in Polson last spring.
Overall, Anderson explained that “this is one of the few instances where it didn’t work out, at least initially, the way we’d hope for it to...we haven’t had any problems since then.”
In addition to thanking Anderson and the judges for reducing the penalties, Fleming also lauded state Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, and hundreds of hunters around the state for speaking out on his behalf.
Now, Fleming urges them to “believe in the system, self-report, and also do what is ethically right.”
“The other thing that I really want to remind all hunters [is] to be sure of your target and beyond...In my own mind, I was sure I was shooting my ram a second time, I thought I wounded him.”
“In hindsight, I wish that I could do it over again, and that I had taken more time and was absolutely certain of my target.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407.