By Karl Puckett
HELENA – Five Washington state men have been stripped of hunting privileges in Montana for five years and ordered to pay $41,000 in fines and restitution for their role in illegally shooting trophy elk in a closed hunting district on the Rocky Mountain Front and failing to check them at a game station.
The case stemmed from a yearlong, two-state poaching investigation by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks into bull elk shot on private land off Benchmark Road adjacent to the Sun River Game Range.
It involved execution of a search warrant at a home of one of the Washington hunters, gathering DNA evidence from elk antlers, checking game check station records and locating the kill sites based on photos taken by the hunters.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Department police assisted.
Robert MacMillan Jr., 39, and Robert MacMillan Sr., 65, both of Montesano, appeared before Justice of the Peace Michael Swingley in Lewis and Clark County Justice Court on Friday, when they were sentenced after entering plea agreements.
Robert Church, 52, of Raymond, entered his plea via video teleconference.
Brent Schiller, 44, of McCleary, and Ken Mills, 48, of Montesano, previously were sentenced.
The men were charged in connection with shooting six bull elk — five of them trophy size — on the Cobb Ranch near Augusta.
At the time of the shootings, which occurred in 2010, 2011 and 2013, the ranch was part of a hunting district that was closed to bull elk hunting. The Cobb Ranch, which runs a private-lease hunting program, was not aware that the elk had been shot and assisted in the investigation, according to FWP.
The MacMillans turned over the antlers of two of the bulls Friday, and Bryan Golie, a FWP Region 4 investigator, loaded them into the back of his pickup.
"We are starting to see more and more of this kind of stuff," Golie said of Montana big game being illegally shot and taken out of state.
"But it also shows we will cross the country to get these animals back," he added.
He called it a scheme to shoot trophy elk and get them out of the state secretly.
The MacMillans chose not to comment, with Robert MacMillan Sr. saying it would be his word against FWP's.
Golie and Sgt. Dave Holland, another FWP warden, traveled to Washington after requesting that authorities there conduct a search warrant at the home of one of the hunters. All of the hunters also were interviewed at that time.
FWP began investigating in April 2014 after Holland received a complaint from the Cobb Ranch about elk carcasses being found on the ranch. The elk had been quartered, and the heads were gone, with only ribs and legs left behind.
FWP officials linked one of the kill sites to November 2013, based on hunting tag information left behind.
"So now we know roughly when they were killed," Golie said.
That information was then compared to records at the Augusta game check station, where hunters must report deer and elk they shoot.
The records showed that no elk from the ranch had been checked. But FWP investigators did find information about hunters who had checked in deer at the game station, and those deer had been shot in the same area where the elk were taken.
"What really got these guys caught was documentation at the Augusta game check station," Golie said.
Wardens used photos taken by the hunters to find the actual kill sites by walking the area and matching them with the identical surroundings captured in the photos. Shell casings were found at the kills sites, Golie said.
"We put a lot of time into this, hours and hours and hours," Golie said. "Some of these cases are difficult. You can't make every one of them. In this case, we made some very solid cases."
FWP also took core DNA samples of the antlers that were confiscated and compared it to DNA collected at kill sites.
The initial investigation involved elk shot in 2013. It led to investigations of additional elk shot in 2010 and 2011, Golie said.
MacMillan Jr. pleaded guilty to failure to stop and report at a check station, hunting during closed season and unlawful possession, all misdemeanors. A felony count of unlawful possession was dismissed. He was fined $2,085 and order to pay $8,000 in restitution.
MacMillan Sr. pleaded guilty to misdemeanor failure to stop and report at a check station, hunting during a closed season, also a misdemeanor, and felony unlawful possession of a bull elk. He was fined $4,085 and order to pay $10,000 in restitution.
Church pleaded guilty to failure to stop and report at a check station, hunting during a closed season, unlawful possession and hunting over the limit. He was fined $3,585 and order to pay $1,500 in restitution.
Restitution for illegally shooting an elk is $1,000, unless it's a trophy, when restitution is $8,000.
"Basically, the state has put a figure on what their wildlife is worth," Golie said.
In addition to the fines, the men can't hunt in Montana for five years.
Schiller was previously fined $2,085, and Mills, $2,050.
Each man was ordered to pay $8,000 in restitution.