FWP eliminates special unit that investigated wildlife crime

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is making changes to its law enforcement department, including disbanding a team of investigators responsible for investigating large-scale wildlife crime and license fraud.

The FWP’s director’s office is said to be eliminating the department’s special investigations unit, a change that was discussed with law enforcement officials on Friday, according to multiple sources close to the FWP.

The Special Investigations unit had been operating out of Helena for about 18 months, with a sequel that included a captain, a lieutenant, and a few detectives.

Other states have also developed wildlife investigation units and countries like Oregon They added special prosecutors dedicated solely to locating, investigating, and prosecuting poachers.

JD Douglas was the captain of the FWP team who discovered some important cases, including a recent case where 23 non-resident fishermen were cited for serial poaching that occurred over several years.

The investigation focused on Byron Kerr’s ranch in fishing grounds 652 and 700 in Garfield and Macon counties, According to Judith Bassen Press. Douglas said in a statement in February that Richard LeBlanc of Little Compton, Rhode led the group of poachers, who were investigated twice before between 2005 and 2011 and issued 31 quotes for hunting violations. A third investigation was launched in 2014 after the department received anonymous information about the Wildlife Information Line.

At least 48 animals were hunted, mostly mule deer. Several fishermen signed plea agreements and LeBlanc was fined $50,000. Farm owner Brion Kerr was fined and lost his hunting privileges for two years.

The Special Investigations Unit is also investigating the killing of controversial species, like wolves.

FWP Director Hank Worsech described Bryon Kerr’s case as “one of the most troubling cases of poaching in recent history.” But now he is dissolving the Special Investigations Unit.

Prior to 2021, poaching cases were handled by the FWP’s Criminal Investigation Division, which was made up of one investigator from each of the FWP’s seven regions who worked independently. They have solved some cases, but one man is not as effective as a team that can share tasks. And while an investigator in, say, one area may have 2 active cases, another may struggle to fit in 10. Some cases may not get the attention they need.

Last year, all detectives were brought to Helena to work together in the newly established Special Investigations Unit with Douglas as their leader. that FWP . documentwhich was prepared for the Legislature on February 5, 2021, marks the creation of the Special Investigations Unit as an achievement.

“Using existing staff and (funding), we have restructured investigators into a joint chain of command in order to more efficiently prioritize and conduct criminal investigations consistently across the state,” the document said.

House Bill 2 is the bill that funds all government departments. As a justification for its funding, FWP provided a Legislative exhibitiondated March 10, 2021, which was included as one of the FWP’s goals to identify and deter “large-scale booty poaching, illegal marketing and illegal trade in Montana’s wildlife resources” using both rangers and the Special Investigations Unit.

FWP boasts that the Special Investigations Unit is a “highly trained, elite group of investigators specializing in large-scale and complex interstate and intrastate investigations of fish and wildlife crime, including investigation of national and international wildlife trafficking syndicates.” The site adds that large-scale poaching and wildlife trafficking cases “have a degree of complexity that rivals or exceeds any other major criminal investigation.”

Investigators often work closely with investigators from the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They also worked directly with the state attorney general’s office when pursuing the prosecution of wildlife criminals. One of the investigators also dealt with license fraud. At Friday’s meeting, the FWP proposed severing its relationship with the attorney general’s office.

That may be less of a priority now. Multiple sources with access to the FWP said that the number of staff in the Special Investigation Unit has dwindled over the past few months, and then the posts were left vacant. In April, Douglas moved to the position of assistant chief of guard, and no one was appointed to be the commander of the special investigations unit. In mid-July, Worsech sent an email to staff stating that Warden President Dave Loewen was out of office and that Douglas would be acting president.

Now, with the chief warden gone and no one to lead the Special Investigations unit, the Special Investigations unit is eliminated and the remaining detectives will disperse to the different FWP regions to work independently once again.

Repeated attempts to comment from FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon were not returned.

Email Correspondent Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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