By Christine Peterson Casper Star-Tribune
CASPER, Wyo. — It must have looked like a law enforcement convention with 38 Wyoming wildlife officials all gathered in one spot.
The takedown would be in and around Ten Sleep, but to avoid generating attention in a tiny mountain town, the officials stationed their headquarters in Thermopolis, about 60 miles away.
As a trial run, wardens in unmarked cars drove from headquarters to where they would execute their search warrants the next day. They would need to make contact with the suspects at exactly the same time. Any delays could allow suspects to call each other and corroborate their stories.
The officers went to bed that night sequestered like a jury during a trial. There could be no leaks. In the next 24 hours, they began working one of the largest poaching cases in Wyoming history, interviewing 65 people and serving four search warrants.
The suspects weren’t violent offenders. They weren’t hunting big bulls out of season or leaving meat to waste like many poachers. But, they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars selling their landowner tags to out of state hunters — illegal in Wyoming.
After more than three years of research, interviews, pleas and trials, the case is drawing to a close. It spanned 12 states and involved nearly 20 people. All of the major players have been sentenced. They’ve been charged nearly $300,000 in fines and restitution and five of them are now felons.
Wildlife officials hope the case serves as a warning: Rule bending will not be tolerated.
In fall 2009, Oregon hunters Bill Mulder and Fred Postlewait arrived in Ten Sleep for their first hunt with Big Horn Adventure Outfitters.
Postlewait’s friend, John Woodmark, had hunted with the company and told Postlewait that there were spots available on an upcoming hunt, according to an investigator close to the case. Woodmark told Postlewait that hunting licenses wouldn’t be a problem.
Mike Ehlebracht, a supervisor of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Investigative Unit who led the investigation, explained what happened next in an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune.
At the hunt with Big Horn Adventure Outfitters, Postlewait shot a massive bull and asked if he should put his hunting tag on the elk. The guides said not to worry. They’d put a landowner tag on the elk.
When Mulder and Postelwait started asking for paperwork or forms they needed to sign, they found out the hunt was illegal. Molder then decided not to shoot his elk. The two men went home and in January 2010 called an Oregon game warden to report the crime. The game warden called Ehlebracht.
In Wyoming, it’s illegal to transfer a hunting license from one person to another. A father can’t shoot his daughter’s deer, a husband can’t fill his wife’s tag and no one other than the Game and Fish Department can sell licenses, Ehlebracht said.
Some states allow hunters to transfer licenses to other hunters, but it’s a formal process. “Nowhere in the world can you hand someone your license and say go fill it,” Ehlebracht said.
Game and Fish built its case against Big Horn Adventures Outfitters after months of interviewing, sorting through Wyoming license histories and interstate game tag records, and completing background searches.
What they uncovered was complex. Landowner, Richard Carter, Sr., divided his land near Ten Sleep into four sections. Each parcel qualified for two landowner elk tags.
By state law, landowners can buy up to two licenses if they own more than 160 acres and animals such as elk or deer use the land for a certain amount each year.
With four parcels, Carter’s land qualified for eight elk tags each year. His son, R.C. Carter, ran Big Horn Adventures Outfitting, and sold all of the hunts. His other son, Mark Carter, guided for the company, Ehlebracht said.
Hunters came from all over the country. Some clients had legal hunting licenses, but many did not. The company built a regular clientele of people who used the Carters’ landowner licenses, Ehlebracht said.
The Carters filled out interstate game tags for each elk killed, allowing the hunter to take the elk back home and appear legal, Ehlebracht said.
Most of the guided hunts cost between $6,000 and $7,500. Officials believe the hunts started in 2003 and made the family nearly $300,000.
Fortunately for investigators, most of the animals shot were pictured on the outfitters’ website with the hunter. Officers simply needed to identify the hunters in the pictures and verify if they had licenses.
Planning a takedown is, in some ways, like planning a battle, said Jim Gregory, investigator for the Wildlife Investigative Unit and point man at the Thermopolis headquarters.
Key interviews must be done simultaneously with all information relayed back to headquarters.
“I don’t worry, but statistically it’s a pretty dangerous job,” Ehlebracht said. “Everybody we deal with has a gun.”
Operation 10 Sleep, as it was named, went down peacefully.
Ehlebracht interviewed suspects and served two search warrants in Oregon with the Oregon State Police. The team in Wyoming interviewed the Carters, their friends and minor players in the business. Teams of six to ten officers served each search warrant.
Interviews started around 6 a.m. and lasted until dark. Most suspects admitted guilt and agreed to work with attorneys to receive leniency in their sentencing.
Some tried to plead their innocence. One suspect might deny everything while a friend admitted the crime for both of them. Because all information circulated through the headquarters, investigators knew within minutes who talked and what they said, Gregory said.
“That type of coordination gets pretty hectic,” he said. “It’s hectic but fatal for the bad guy.”
They seized nearly 20 illegal mounts, enough to fill an evidence room in the Game and Fish Casper office. Wyoming, Oregon and U.S. wildlife officials spent more than 3,500 hours investigating the case.
The case file stands nearly two feet high.
By the end of June, all of the major players including the Carters and the regulars had been sentenced in federal court.
Federal officials became involved because of the Lacey Act, which makes trafficking wildlife, fish or plants across state lines a federal crime.
Another 10 suspects will be charged in state court this year, Ehlebracht said.
Those who became felons — Richard Carter, his two sons and two hunters from Oregon — will never be able to own or hunt with a modern gun. They can still use bows or some types of muzzle loaders.
R.C. Carter spent two months in prison.
Operation 10 Sleep wasn’t Wyoming’s first case of landowners selling tags for illegal hunts. Officials closed Operation Sagebrush about 10 years ago near Gillette. Landowners sold mostly deer and antelope tags to out-of-state hunters. Officials are currently working on two other landowner tag cases but can’t reveal any details, Ehlebracht said.
Selling landowner tags isn’t the blood-thirsty, head-hunting killing normally associated with the word poaching, but it is still illegal and is still poaching, Gregory said.
“Working these poaching cases is not for us, it’s for you,” Gregory said. “You picked up the deer regs and read them and did what you were supposed to do and went home. It’s a protection of the resource, and we did this for you.”