FWP disbands special unit that investigated wildlife crimes
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is making changes to its law enforcement division, including disbanding a team of detectives responsible for investigating large-scale wildlife crimes and license fraud.
The Director’s Office of FWP is reportedly eliminating the department’s Special Investigations Unit, a change which was discussed with law enforcement staff on Friday, according to multiple sources close to FWP.
The special investigations unit has been working out of Helena for about 18 months, with a complement that included a captain, a lieutenant and handful of investigators.
Other states have also developed wildlife special investigations units and states like Oregon have added special prosecutors dedicated solely to locating, investigating and prosecuting poachers.
JD Douglas was the captain of the FWP team that cracked some significant cases, including a recent one where 23 nonresident hunters were cited for serial poaching occurring over several years.
The investigation centered on the Byron Kerr Ranch in hunting districts 652 and 700 in Garfield and McCone counties, according to the Judith Basin Press. Douglas said in a February statement that Richard LeBlanc of Little Compton, R.I., led the group of hunters, who had been investigated twice before between 2005 and 2011 and had been issued 31 citations for hunting violations. A third investigation began in 2014 after the department received anonymous information on the wildlife tip line.
At least 48 animals, mostly mule deer, were poached. Many hunters signed plea agreements and LeBlanc was fined $50,000. Ranch owner Bryon Kerr was fined and lost his hunting privileges for two years.
The Special Investigations Unit is also investigates the killing of controversial species, such as wolves.
FWP Director Hank Worsech described the Bryon Kerr case as “one of the most disturbing poaching cases in recent history.” But now, he’s disbanding the Special Investigations Unit.
Prior to 2021, such poaching cases were handled by FWP’s Criminal Investigation Section, which was made up of one investigator from each of FWP’s seven regions who worked independently. They solved some cases, but one man isn’t as effective as a team that can share tasks. And while an investigator in one region might have, say, two active cases, another might be struggling to juggle 10. Some cases might not get the attention they needed.
Last year, all the investigators were brought to Helena to work together in the newly created Special Investigations Unit with Douglas as their captain. An FWP document, prepared for the Legislature on Feb. 5, 2021, mentions the creation of the Special Investigations Unit as an accomplishment.
“Using existing personnel and (funding), we restructured investigators into a common chain of command to more efficiently prioritize and consistently conduct criminal investigations across the state,” the document said.
House Bill 2 is the bill that funds all government departments. As justification for its funding, FWP submitted a Legislative exhibit, dated March 10, 2021, that listed as one of FWP’s objectives the identification and deterrence of “large-scale trophy poaching, illicit commercialization and unlawful trafficking of Montana’s wildlife resources” using both wardens and the Special Investigations Unit.
The FWP website boasts that the Special Investigations Unit is “a highly trained and elite group of investigators who specialize in large scale, complex, interstate and intrastate investigations into fish and wildlife crime, including investigation of national and international wildlife trafficking rings.” The website adds that large-scale poaching and wildlife trafficking cases “feature a degree of complexity that rivals or exceeds any other major criminal investigation.”
The investigators often work closely with detectives from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They also worked directly with the state Attorney General’s Office when pursuing prosecution of wildlife criminals. One investigator also handled license fraud. At Friday’s meeting, FWP proposed severing its relationship with the Attorney General’s office.
That may be less of a priority now. Multiple sources with access to FWP said the number of employees in the Special Investigation Unit has dwindled over the past few months, and then positions were left unfilled. In April, Douglas moved into the position of Assistant Warden Chief, and no one was hired to be the captain of the Special Investigations Unit. In mid-July, Worsech sent an email to staff saying Warden Chief Dave Loewen was out of the office and Douglas would be acting chief.
Now, with the chief warden gone and no one leading the Special Investigations Unit, the Special Investigations Unit is being eliminated and the remaining investigators will disperse to the various FWP regions to work independently again.
Repeated attempts for comment from FWP spokesman Greg Lemon were not returned.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.