Poaching-ring head is sentenced to prison

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Grand Junction-area outfitter maimed animals to ensure successful hunts

On Feb. 1, 2008, Nicholaus Rodgers, a seasonal hunting guide from Oregon, and Caitlin Loncarich, also a seasonal guide, treed a mountain lion in rugged territory on the Utah-Colorado border.

POACHING RING SENTENCED

From left, Nicholaus Rodgers, Christopher Loncarich, Andie Loncarich, an unidentified hunter, and Caitlin Loncarich with a mountain lion killed in Utah without a license, then illegally checked in Colorado. Christopher Loncarich of Mack, Colo., was the head of a poaching ring that caught and wounded animals so clients could shoot them more easily. Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Instead of killing it or letting it go, as required by state law, they clamped a leghold trap on its paw.

The next day, Rodgers shot the lion in the paw. Then he, Loncarich, and another guide named Marvin Ellis took a client from Colorado on a mountain-lion hunt in Utah despite the fact that the client did not have a Utah mountain-lion license.

Not surprisingly, the “hunt” proved successful, since the wounded animal that still had a cumbersome trap on its paw was hardly an elusive prey.

Afterward, as the triumphant client and the conspirators headed home with the trophy parts of the dead lion, Ellis drove in front of them in a separate truck in order to scout for wildlife officers. Caitlin and her father, Christopher Loncarich, who was reportedly the brains behind the entire operation, lied to officers with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, saying none of their clients had killed a mountain lion that day.

Christopher Loncarich later warned the client not to report killing the puma that day because he didn’t want the wildlife officers to know he’d lied to them.

That incident was one of numerous such “hunts” that Christopher Loncarich staged for high-paying clients, in what is being called one of the worst cases of poaching in the Utah-Colorado region in recent years.

In a grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court issued in last January, Loncarich and Rodgers were charged with 17 counts related to the illegal trapping, maiming, and hunting of mountain lions and bobcats.

Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (formerly the Division of Wildlife), said this was one of the cruelest and most perverse examples of poaching he’s seen in his career.

“What they did to the animals so a person could hunt them – I’ve been around 44 years and I don’t ever remember seeing that occur before,” he told the Free Press.

“This was not hunting — it was a crime,” said CPW Area Wildlife Manager JT Romatzke in a press release. “It was cruel to the animal and contrary to what an ethical, legal hunt should be.”

On Nov. 20, the 56-year-old Loncarich, of Mack, Colo., was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Denver to 27 months in prison followed by three years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act. This federal law bans the interstate transportation of any wildlife taken illegally in any state. Under the plea agreement, all other charges were dismissed.

Rodgers, 31, who also has pleaded guilty to the same single charge, is scheduled to be sentenced in January 2015.

Loncarich may be banned for life from hunting and fishing in Colorado and 43 Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact states, according to a press release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The indictment came after a three-year investigation involving CPW, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Investigators found that some 18 clients who contracted with Loncarich had been involved in the illegal killing of more than 30 mountain lions and bobcats since 2004, according to the press release.

The case was prosecuted by the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Loncarich, a licensed outfitter who operated out of his residence in Mack (just east of the Utah border near Interstate 70), employed his two adult daughters, Caitlin and Andie Loncarich, as well as Rodgers and Ellis. According to the indictment, between January 2007 and March 2010 they conspired to offer easy and lucrative expeditions in the Book Cliff Mountains. Loncarich received up to $7,500 for each mountain-lion hunt, according to a press release from CPW, and $700 to $1,500 for each bobcat hunt, sharing the proceeds with his assistants.

They would typically use hunting dogs to tree or corner a mountain lion or bobcat, then put a leghold trap on the animal’s paw or shoot it in the leg to make it easy to kill, according to the indictment. The use of leghold traps is banned in Colorado by a constitutional amendment, while Utah law bans the use of drugs, ropes, traps or snares to capture mountain lions.

It is legal in Utah to use leghold traps to catch “furbearers” such as bobcats. However, when caught, such animals are to be either released or killed immediately.

Loncarich and his assistants violated hunting laws right and left, according to the indictment.

They often contracted with clients who did not have valid licenses for hunts in Utah and Colorado, according to the document. Following a kill, they usually sent a truck out ahead of the vehicle that was carrying the client so the “scout” could radio back if he or she spotted wildlife officers and the conspirators could dispose of the trophy parts.

The suspects reportedly lied to wildlife officers about where they caught certain animals, took the animals across state lines illegally, and even, upon at least one occasion, caught a lion, illegally radio-collared it, and tracked it down a year later and caught it again.

According to the CPW press release, they then immobilized that animal overnight with a leg-hold trap. The next day, they put it in a cage and took it to Loncarich’s residence, where it was imprisoned for a week until a client from Missouri arrived. Then the hapless cougar was shoved into a box, taken by snowmobile to a predetermined area, and turned loose for the client to kill for a price of $4,000.

The Book Cliffs run east and west nearly 200 miles from Colorado’s De Beque Canyon into the Grand Valley and on toward Green River, Utah. Rugged stretches of mostly federal public land, they are popular sites for trophy hunting.

“Chris Loncarich of Loncarich Guides and Outfitter has developed quite a hunting niche for himself,” stated a January 2002 article in The Hunting Report, an online newsletter.

“Loncarich runs mountain lion hunts along the Utah and Colorado borders, where he offers clients the realistic opportunity of killing two lions on the same trip – one in each state. . . .

“Loncarich likes to hunt the Book Cliffs, a 150-mile mountain range that spans both Utah and Colorado, so it’s entirely possible to jump a lion in one state and have the chase extend into the other. For those who only want to hunt one cat, Loncarich will hunt areas where there’s no danger of the lion crossing into the other state.”

The article also boasted, “Last year, Loncarich produced lions for most of his hunters. The only client who left without a lion hide missed a treed cat at 40 yards with a scoped rifle – that’s the life of an outfitter! As for trophy size, Loncarich says that although his clients didn’t take cats that would score in the record book last season, some of them were huge. Two stretched the tape to nine feet. A cat like that will make a spectacular mount.”

Velarde told the Free Press he doesn’t believe poaching is prevalent in the area, but it does occur.

“Just last week officers found three elk, one of which had its head cut off, in northwest Colorado near the Utah state line,” he said. “It is our trophy animals – trophy bucks and bulls, Rocky Mountain and desert bighorn – where those things have been occurring and continue to occur.”

Velarde said he believes there is less poaching now than in the past. “I would say in general sportsmen are getting better. I would say the general public is a lot better following the rules and regulations than in the past, but what is still out there is the trophy-type poaching.

“I’m not indicting the majority of hunters. Most obey the law.”

Special Agent in Charge Steve Oberholtzer, who oversees Fish and Wildlife Service law-enforcement operations in the Mountain-Prairie Region, told the Free Press he could not comment in detail on the case because Rodgers had yet to be sentenced.

However, Oberholtzer said whenever there is fairly significant commercial value to a wildlife trophy, whether elephant ivory or rhino horn or mountain-lion pelts and giant elk racks, poaching tends to increase.

“You’re going to see a common amount of poaching or unlawful exploitation of that wildlife unless there’s a large amount of resources dedicated to enforcement and prosecution,” Oberholtzer said.

Velarde said information about poaching comes to agencies primarily through tips from confidential informants or from local wildlife officers on the ground. Depending on the severity of the offenses involved, the case may go to law enforcement in Denver for further investigation.

Anyone with information about illegal hunting in Colorado should contact Operation Game Thief, the Colorado State Patrol, or regional or area wildlife officers, Velarde said.

Operation Game Thief is a program that pays rewards of $100 to $1,000 to callers who report poaching. Reports may be kept confidential if the caller wishes. Citizens may call toll-free within Colorado at 1-877-COLO- OGT, Verizon cell phone users can dial #OGT, or citizens can make reports via email at game.thief@state.co.us.

In Utah, callers can report poaching at 1-800-662-3337. Most wireless phone users can dial *DEER. Reports may also be made at the Division of Wildlife Resources web site.

For her role in the scheme, Caitlin Loncarich pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor Lacey Act violations on Sept. 30. She received one year of probation and a $1,000 fine as well as 60 hours of community service, 30 of those to be spent with the CPW Hunter Education program. Andie Loncarich also pleaded guilty and was sentenced on a misdemeanor Lacey Act violation, receiving one year of probation, a $500 fine and 36 hours of community service, half of which must be spent with the CPW Hunter Education program.

Ellis pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June 2013 to three years’ probation, six months of home detention and a $3,100 fine.

Because Loncarich’s 2008 Ford truck and Ellis’ 1995 Dodge truck had been used in the commission of Lacey Act violations, those vehicles were seized and subsequently forfeited to the government.

Three of Loncarich’s clients were issued federal Lacey Act violation notices and have paid a total of $13,100 in fines.

“We were very well satisfied with the penalties,” Velarde said.

The maximum penalty for conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act is five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

In a written statement prior to his sentencing, Loncarich and his attorney pleaded for leniency, saying he had struggled with depression and substance abuse involving sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and painkillers. One of his daughters said in the statement that the drug use affected his judgment. and that “he also seemed increasingly tired of dealing with the hunters. He felt that they weren’t as tough as they used to be, and he got tired of having to coddle them. He would get upset because they were too out of shape to hike and track animals, and they just wanted to shoot animals without having to hunt them.”

Loncarich asked for a sentence of only probation.

In the government’s response to his sentencing statement, attorneys wrote that his offenses “involved cruelty to animals of a scope, and on a scale, never before seen by the attorneys of the Environmental Crimes Section. . . .The pain inflicted on the mountain lions and bobcats had no other purpose than to get Defendant Loncarich and his coconspirators paid more quickly. . . . the Government submits that a sentence in the high part of the Guidelines range would begin to reflect the seriousness of the conduct at issue in this case and the circumstances under which the conduct was committed. . . a probationary sentence is not warranted.”

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From December 2014.