Final Sentence in Colorado's Worst Poaching Case

One of the most repellent wildlife cruelty cases in state history drew to a close this week with the sentencing of a Western Slope outfitter, the last of six defendants involved in a poaching operation that provided high-priced hunts of mountain lions and bobcats — many of whom had already been maimed to make them easier to track and kill. 

Nathan Simms, 31, was sentenced to three months in federal prison and six months of home confinement, according to this report in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.  His father-in-law and partner in the operation, Christopher Loncarich, was sentenced to 27 months in prison in 2014. At the time, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer called it one of the worst poaching cases he's seen in forty years on the job. The others involved in the scheme, including Loncarich's daughters Andie and Caitlin and employees Marvin Ellis and Nicholaus Rodgers, received various terms of probation, fines and community service but no prison time. 

Simms pleaded guilty to violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in illegally taken wildlife. A lengthy undercover investigation established that Loncarich, a well-known guide and outfitter based in Mack, Colorado, had hit upon a way of virtually guaranteeing successful expeditions for trophy hunters. He and his employees captured bobcats and mountain lions in leg traps or cages, then hobbled them in some fashion — usually by shooting them in the foot or the stomach.

The maimed cats would then be released, to be picked off by the just-arrived clients during outings in the Book Cliffs, a series of mountains in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Between 2007 and 2010, eighteen clients paid Loncarich between $3,500 and $7,500 each for lions and from $700 to $1,500 for bobcats. Investigators allege that as many as fifty bobcats and around a dozen lions were killed in this way; the ones killed in Utah were then illegally transported to Colorado, where documents were faked to obtain required seals for the hides.

At least one lion was trapped and fitted with a radio-tracking collar, allowing the guides to trap it again when needed months later. They put the lion in a cage and held it for a week at Loncarich's home, waiting for the client to arrive from Missouri. The lion was then boxed and transported by snowmobile to a place where the client was sure to find it. The client paid $4,000 for that particular bit of sport.

"This was not hunting — it was a crime," said Colorado Parks and Wildlife area manager J.T. Romatzke. "It was cruel to the animal and contrary to what an ethical, legal hunt should be."

It's not clear if the outfitters' clients were aware of the extra "services" performed to aid their hunts, but three hunters paid a total of $13,100 in fines in the case. One intriguing document in the court file, filed by the defense, describes Loncarich as a man who's "struggled with depression and substance abuse most of his adult life," a man whose increasing use of "shortcuts" was prompted both by his dependence on prescription painkillers and his growing loathing of his own clients, who tended to be fat cats with limited skills.

According to an investigator's interview with the guide's wife of 33 years, Loncarich "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."
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast