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Epic wildlife case

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Bruce Burkett was en route from Bismarck to Minnewaukan, N.D., early one morning in October 2004 when he stopped to watch five waterfowl hunters in a field west of McClusky, N.D.

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Bruce Burkett was en route from Bismarck to Minnewaukan, N.D., early one morning in October 2004 when he stopped to watch five waterfowl hunters in a field west of McClusky, N.D.

It was before legal shooting hours, and the shots resonating from the field caught his attention.

Commercial and investigations supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Burkett spent the next few hours observing from a distance before confronting the hunters as they packed up to leave the field.

The veteran warden eventually ticketed the four hunters, clients of Sheyenne Valley Lodge, and their guide for keeping too many ducks. The group had 42 ducks, Burkett said 12 more than their limit, even if the guide shot his limit, which at that time was six ducks.

The four hunters pleaded guilty and received a "substantial fine," Burkett said, but the guide contested the charges, and a jury in Sheridan County, N.D., ruled he was innocent.

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"Court cases can go (sour)," Burkett said. "Even when you've got a solid case."

Burkett said there had been rumors of illegal activity at the lodge, but his encounter that October morning was the last straw, of sorts, the first steps down the road to a lengthy investigation.

"We did have information," Burkett said. "Not specific times, dates or places, but just the word there were a lot of things happening with birds that were not legal inside the lodge."

The road ended Nov. 9, when the former operators of Sheyenne Valley Lodge near Goodrich, N.D., were sentenced in the largest federal wildlife prosecution in North Dakota history.

Far-reaching case

Ted Mertz, 42, and his father, Orlan Mertz, 72, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Bismarck to misdemeanor violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the transport of illegally taken wildlife.

Meanwhile, the lodge, which operated as a Limited Liability Partnership, pleaded guilty to a felony violation of federal game laws.

U.S. District Judge Dan Hovland ordered the Mertzes to pay $90,000 in fines and restitution as part of a plea agreement. Of that total, $35,000 goes to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, $10,000 to the Dakota Zoo Raptor Rehabilitation Program in Bismarck and $45,000 goes to the Lacey Act Reward Account.

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According to court records, investigators documented hundreds of violations, which included routinely encouraging hunters to shoot more than their limit of waterfowl and upland game birds, shooting raptors and wasting unwanted birds by throwing the carcasses into dump pits to rot.

As part of a plea agreement, Ted Mertz and Orlan Mertz each were placed on probation for two years. They also were banned from guiding and outfitting for life and can't hunt in North America for two years.

Meanwhile, seven guides earlier reached plea deals, and 94 hunters from across the U.S. paid a total of about $20,000 in fines for misdemeanor violations, The Associated Press reported.

The Mertzes ceased operation in 2005, and the lodge now is under new ownership.

"To date, this is the largest, most far-reaching wildlife prosecution in the history of North Dakota," Cameron Hayden, assistant U.S. attorney, said in an interview. "We were very pleased with the result."

Only two other wildlife felonies ever had been prosecuted in the state, Hayden said, the most recent being a 2006 conviction in which Warren Anderson, who ran a commercial pheasant operation in western North Dakota, paid $60,000 for shooting three bald eagles.

Last week, Orlan Mertz apologized in court. He called the incident "the biggest mistake I've made in my business life." Ted Mertz said he knew crimes were being committed and accepted responsibility. "Basically there's no excuse," he said.

Closer look

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The turning point, though, was that morning in October 2004, when Burkett spotted the hunters and their guide in the field. The guide might have won the case, but the incident provided the impetus for a closer look inside the workings of Sheyenne Valley Lodge, Burkett said.

The federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also joined the investigation.

And still, it was business as usual at Sheyenne Valley Lodge. Court records show about 250 clients hunted waterfowl at the lodge from October 2004 through October 2005, paying anywhere from $1,600 to $2,000 for the hunts.

"Certainly, from the actions that happened in 2004, and the footsteps that the operation heard in 2004 from us coming after that guide, it should have been like, 'Whoa, we've got to clean up our act,'" Burkett said. "It should have been like a bell ringing in the tower, but apparently not."

Going undercover

The next year, in October 2005, Fish and Wildlife Service agents working undercover posed as paying clients of Sheyenne Valley Lodge. According to Rich Grosz, a special agent for the federal service in Bismarck, the officers encountered numerous violations during their time at the lodge.

"They were basically encouraged to exceed the daily bag of ducks and upland birds, and they did so with regularity when encouraged to do so," Grosz said.

The undercover officers documented other clients doing the same thing, Grosz said, including some who bragged about exceeding limits. They also observed a dump pit where whole carcass birds later were found and two chest freezers with untagged birds, some breasted and others with a single wing attached.

"The birds were not tagged, so (clients) did not have any idea what happened to their birds while there," Grosz said. "There was no way to trace back who had harvested what bird because no records were kept."

Serving warrants

Then, on Oct. 28, 2005, state and federal wardens served simultaneous warrants on the operation's North Lodge and South Lodge, which are located about 10 miles apart "as the bird flies," Grosz said.

Officers found dead raptors, all hawks, along with numerous whole-carcass ducks on the grounds of the North Lodge, Grosz said, along with the pit where lodge personnel dumped birds.

A total of 94 carcasses of ducks and geese were taken from the pit, Grosz said, but officers didn't recover all of the birds. Hayden, the assistant U.S. attorney, called it a "soup of rotting ducks and geese" that was estimated to exceed 1,000 birds.

"As far as the wanton waste of the birds in the dump pit, I've never seen it to that extent," Grosz said. "As far as the unlawful harvest, it certainly ranks in the top two I've ever dealt with. It's certainly the most egregious one I've ever seen in North Dakota."

Despite the scope of the case, Grosz said neither state nor federal investigators were targeting North Dakota's guiding and outfitting industry.

"It wouldn't matter if it was a commercial operation or an individual," Grosz said. "If someone has violated a wildlife law, be it one deer over, one duck over or selling wildlife unlawfully, obviously the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will actively pursue.

"We just want to make sure (guides and outfitters) are in compliance, same as anybody else."

Industry view

That's what the industry wants, too. According to Kyle Blanchfield of Devils Lake, president of the North Dakota Professional Guides and Outfitters Association, the group worked hard during the 2003 legislative session to establish more stringent regulations for guides and outfitters.

Burkett of Game and Fish said North Dakota now has 112 outfitters and 100 guides who are licensed to provide service for those outfitters. That compares with 141 outfitters and 115 guides in 2004, the first year of the new regulations.

In 2003, North Dakota had 402 guides working under the old system, Burkett said.

"I would hope the ones we're losing are the ones that shouldn't be in business, which I guess is the purpose of enforcement," he said.

Blanchfield says the outcome of the Sheyenne Valley Lodge case, while ugly, proves the system is working.

"You've seen some pretty high-profile guiding and outfitting violations in the past 2 years, and a lot of that stems from the fact we were able to put better enforcement teeth into the law," Blanchfield said. "It hasn't been a very comfortable experience to see big camps like this go down, but it sends a message there's no room for these violations in North Dakota."

If there's a lesson to be learned from the sentence, it's that regulations are put in place for a reason, and everyone must obey them, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Grosz said.

"Stepping across the line for extra deer or birds for commercial gain is just not worth it," he said.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper Epic wildlife case By Brad Dokken 20071125

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