An anonymous tip that turned into a 5-year investigation is nearly over for Nebraska wildlife officials. In what’s being called the biggest poaching case in state history, investigators have linked over 100 people from 21 states to the illegal take of big game animals and transporting them across state lines, including prominent citizens and a television personality.
The case is centered around Hidden Hills Outfitters near Broken Bow, Nebraska. According to the Omaha World-Herald, clients paid the outfitter $2,500 to $7,000 for a chance at big game trophies and utilized illegal tactics, like baiting and spotlighting. Rifles were used during archery season—often with suppressors to cover the noise—and animals were shot from the side of the road. Some participants didn’t even have legal hunting permits.
To date, 30 people have pleaded guilty and ordered to pay a collective total of $570,453 in fines and restitution. Together, all have lost their hunting and fishing privileges for 53 years, the World-Herald reports. Others are awaiting sentencing, so these numbers will only increase.
Jacob Hueftle, co-owner and chief operator of Hidden Hills Outfitters, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $214,375 in restitution to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He will not be allowed to hunt, trap, or “engage in any related business” for 15 years after his release as part of the plea agreement.
The investigation was a joint effort by Nebraska Game and Parks officers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Together, they uncovered a minimum of 97 animals that were transported over state lines, including 34 mule deer, 30 whitetail deer, 27 turkeys, and six antelope.
“It’s outstanding that they finally put some teeth in these violations and sentenced someone to something meaningful, rather than a fine,” said Tom Lanz, a lifelong hunter and active member in Nebraska hunting organizations. “We manage wildlife for the benefit of everybody. That wildlife has a value to society. When they steal that, they steal from all of us. It’s just offensive.”
During the investigation, it was discovered that multiple hunters shot migratory nongame birds—including hawks and falcons—for target practice. The Hidden Hills’ plea agreement says “’J.H.’ personally killed at least 100 nongame birds.” Hueftle and Hidden Hills Outfitters were charged with violating the Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Act.
One of the key clients of Hidden Hills was TV hunting personality Rod Owen. Owen has been featured in Field & Stream and on the Outdoor Channel, and was a cast member of Drury Outdoors. Investigators discovered that several of Owen’s animals were illegally baited into range and two were killed with a rifle (after supposedly being killed legally by bow). For his participation in the case, he has been ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution. Drury Outdoors has severed ties with Owen.
While sentencing is still ongoing, the fact that investigators were able to link so many to the crimes and punish accordingly may send the message to others who are tempted to poach big game animals in the future. Regardless, Nebraska hunters are advocating for harsher penalties and steeper fines to those convicted of poaching animals within the state.
“The ethical hunters of this state want things like this stopped and stopped for good,” said longtime hunter and hunting advocate Janice Spicha. “If you knowingly participate in illegal hunting activities, then you shouldn’t be able to hunt again. Ever.”
Feature image via USFWS.