4 headed to trial for illegal lion hunt

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A Plains hunting outfitter and some of his employees and clients will soon stand trial for illegally hunting a mountain lion near White Sulfur Springs.

Prosecutors allege that in early February 2013, Ernest Jablonsky, an outfitter at Montana Big Game Pursuits, took North Dakota resident Richard Ceynar and an unnamed colleague hunting for mountain lions in the Checkerboard area.

At the time, the indictment claims, Jablonsky lacked a U.S. Forest Service special-use permit required to lead hunting trips. The document goes on to detail how he and his assistants, James Day and Mitch Theule, used illegal aids – two-way radios and artificial light – to tree a lion, which Ceynar then allegedly shot after permitted hunting hours.

The prosecution said that once the hunt was over, Jablonsky instructed Ceynar to write that the hunt had not been outfitted on his Montana Lion Harvest Form. His colleague was told to write “two elk hunts” in the memo space of the check he used to pay for the trip.

Ceynar had the lion mounted and taken to his North Dakota home. The indictment said Jablonsky failed to list him as a mountain lion hunting client in his log.

The evidence for these actions, gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, prompted a federal grand jury to indict them on counts of conspiracy to illegally hunt, kill and traffic mountain lions, interstate transport and possession of illegally killed mountain lions, illegal sale of outfitted mountain lion hunts, and false labeling.

Keri Leggett, acting public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told the Daily Inter Lake their trial has been scheduled for Jan. 2 in Helena. Day is in custody, she said, while the other three have been released pending trial. Leggett declined to give further information on Ceynar’s colleague.

If convicted, each man could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. They all pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate John T. Johnston last month.

Jablonsky’s attorney, Michael Sherwood, did not reply to requests for comment. On Monday, he filed a motion to produce, requesting that the court turn over multiple pieces of information from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ investigation, including:

• Profits that Fish, Wildlife and Parks has reaped from successful prosecution of wildlife criminals, including the amount it allegedly gained from selling Ceynar’s seized lion.

• Evidence of what the defense calls an undercover agent’s unsuccessful attempt to entrap Jablonsky.

• The identities of agents who, in a separate case, testified they had not searched a suspect’s computer, only to be refuted by expert testimony.

“The defense will require most of the evidence sought in order to defend Mr. Jablonsky at trial,” Sherwood wrote in a brief supporting the motion.

The Attorney’s Office declined to comment on any possible outcome for this case. But in an email, Leggett said that “we have prosecuted outfitters for their roles in illegally taking animals in the past.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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