Wild Goose Chase
Friday, May 5, started out cloudless and hot. By 8:30 a.m., Ron Ruhr's girlfriend had left for work and her ten-year-old daughter had gone to school. But Ruhr, a self-employed carpenter, had set aside this day to have some fun. Bill, a man he had taken goose hunting, was so grateful for Ruhr's guidance that he had offered to buy him some gear at Cabela's, a veritable candy store for sportsmen, selling everything from gun benches and camouflage rubber boots to snowmobile accessories and boat motors.
Bill had said they'd meet at Ruhr's Longmont house at nine so they could get an early start for the long drive to the nearest Cabela's, which is in Sidney, Nebraska. It was going to be a good day.
Ruhr left his house briefly to take the younger of his two Chesapeake Bay retrievers to a nearby watering hole to cool off. As he headed home on his bike a few minutes before nine, he watched a Colorado Division of Wildlife truck turn onto his street. Six more trucks followed. They stopped in front of Ruhr's one-level wood-and-brick home, and about ten officers got out. Ruhr was surprised, but in the few seconds he had to process what was going on, he at first thought it was a nice surprise -- an impromptu visit for some tips on goose hunting from an acknowledged expert, perhaps.
"You guys want to know about hunting?" Ruhr asked as he approached the men.
"Oh, yeah, we want to know about hunting, all right," one of them answered.
In fact, the wildlife officers wanted to know every detail of Ruhr's hunting outfit, Out of the Blue Guide Service, and his hunting trips -- where he went and how often, what he shot and why.
To Ruhr's shock, the armed officers flashed a search warrant and marched into his house. They removed every picture from the walls, rifled everything, including his girlfriend's underwear drawer, and emptied every closet. Slowly and methodically, they pulled soup cans, cereal boxes and potato chip bags out of Ruhr's kitchen cabinets. They searched his refrigerator, looked under his bed, pulled out the cushions on his couches and combed every single folder, book, journal and scrap of paper in his study and den.
While some of them boxed up his bank records, hunting gear and shotguns and carted them out, Ruhr sat in his living room with other officers who asked him questions about hunting just as casually as if they were shooting the shit over a couple of cold ones. Ruhr says they seemed to be impressed by his knowledge of snow geese, the species in which he specializes. When the officers were done with his house, they searched the red 1991 Nissan pickup truck Ruhr takes on all of his hunting trips. Then they went through the cargo trailer parked in his gravel driveway.
The men didn't leave Ruhr's house until 2:30 p.m. Bill never showed.
State officials had their eyes on Ruhr long before they descended on his quiet subdivision west of U.S. Highway 287 -- since March 11, 1998, actually, the day the Denver Post ran a glowing feature story about Ruhr and his passion for snow goose hunting. It wasn't the first time Ruhr had been written about; he'd been mentioned in the Rocky Mountain News and quoted frequently in the Post as an expert on the species. But it was the first time Cathy Wells, program administrator for Colorado's Office of Outfitters Registration, had heard about Ruhr.
She says someone from a law-enforcement agency sent her the article, and when she looked up Out of the Blue Guide Service, she found that it wasn't registered with her office. Anyone who charges hunters or fishers for the use of equipment or guide services is required to be registered with the state; hunting waterfowl without the proper registration is a misdemeanor. So Wells hired independent investigator Bill Sivils, aka "Bill," to look into Ruhr's activities.
Ruhr has never been a registered outfitter; he's been guiding goose-hunting trips in Texas and Colorado for more than a decade, but he's always worked as a contractor for another outfitter. It was cheaper and easier that way, he says, because in addition to paying the initial registration fee ($375 in Colorado this year), outfitters must also be bonded and insured and pay an annual renewal charge. Since Ruhr hunts in Colorado only about nine days a year -- he spends most of the season guiding in Texas, where the snow geese are more plentiful, then returns to Colorado in February or March to catch the flock heading north at the end of the season -- the cost and the amount of paperwork involved in being an outfitter aren't worth it.
There is nothing wrong with that arrangement; Colorado law doesn't require an individual guide to be registered as long as the company he's working for is. Ruhr started Out of the Blue Guide Service five years ago but continued to work for various private hunters who had their own outfitter registrations. Ruhr says he can't recall which company he was guiding for in March 1998, the month that Wells noticed the article about him.
Ruhr wanted a permanent arrangement in Colorado, though, so he hit up an old fishing buddy who was planning to start a fly-fishing outfit called Mile High Guide Services; Ruhr proposed that Out of the Blue Guide Service become the goose-hunting component of Mile High beginning in 1999. Ruhr says his friend, Brad Lingbeck, thought it sounded like a good idea, and the men reached a verbal agreement: In return for allowing him to be a part of their company, Ruhr would provide $500 worth of guided hunting to Lingbeck and his partner, Andrew Nagel, and two of their friends. And rather than go through Mile High Guide Services, which would take care of renewing the company's outfitter registration each year, Ruhr's clients would pay him directly.
But although Ruhr may have thought he was working under Mile High Guide Services in 1999, he wasn't. Not only is a verbal arrangement like this one invalid under a state law that requires hunting or fishing clients to book their trips through the outfitter, which, in turn, is supposed to pay the guide a portion of the proceeds, but Lingbeck and Nagel deny that the agreement was ever made.
"We had talked to Ron in 1998, but he didn't work for us in 1999," Nagel says. "Ron went out and guided, but we didn't have a contract with him. This whole thing has been a big miscommunication."
"There was no agreement in 1999 because we didn't know what the rules were," Lingbeck adds. "[Ron] certainly didn't have our permission. In 2000, we did talk about it, and he filled out paperwork [to become an employee]." In addition to completing a W-4 form, Ruhr paid Lingbeck $500 to help with the company's annual costs.
In spite of that, Ruhr was still booking his own trips, and his clients were still paying him directly. But at the same time, an even bigger problem was lurking: Mile High Guide Services failed to renew its outfitter registration in January 2000.
Nagel, who was responsible for renewing the registration, claims he simply forgot. The company had only formed in June 1998, so he'd only had to renew once before; plus, he says, he and his wife were in the process of buying a house and moving out of their apartment, and in the chaos, it slipped his mind. "Shame on Ron for 1999 and shame on me for 2000," Nagel says. "I am totally at fault for not renewing the registration in time."
But Nagel also claims he didn't even know that Ruhr had paid his partner $500 to guide under Mile High Guide Services this year. "I never saw a dime of it. Ron had an agreement with Brad, and I was unaware of that. So there was miscommunication between me and my partner, too."
Nagel found out about the lapsed registration on May 5 -- the day that a man posing as a fisherman who wanted to go on a guided trip showed up on Nagel's doorstep with a DOW officer. The fisherman turned out to be Sivils, whose other target, Ruhr, was having his house searched at that very moment as part of the same investigation. The men asked Nagel if his company was registered. "I went upstairs and checked my files and realized I wasn't," Nagel says. "They told me I couldn't guide and ordered me to take down my Web site and stop advertising."
After they left, Nagel went to the Office of Outfitters Registration and submitted his registration application along with the non-refundable $375 fee, but the office denied his application. (No one who is under investigation can get a registration until the case is closed, Wells says.)
Ruhr says the state wasted two years investigating him -- and later, Nagel and Lingbeck -- when both misunderstandings could have been cleared up with a phone call. Had he known that his business arrangement wasn't legitimate or that the Mile High's registration was overdue, he insists that he and his friends would have immediately made it right. Instead, the Office of Outfitters Registration spent more than $5,000 investigating a misdemeanor, put Mile High Guide Services out of business for several months, and cost all three men thousands of dollars. In addition, the Division of Wildlife spent untold man-hours and other resources on the case.
Simply calling the targets of its investigations directly isn't exactly routine procedure for the Office of Outfitters Registration, Wells explains. "If they're not registered with us, many times they're not doing other things right."
Hunting and fishing outfitters used to register with the Division of Wildlife until 1981, when the state legislature decided to stop regulating them. Then, two years later, lawmakers changed their minds, creating the Office of Outfitters Registration and placing it under the Department of Regulatory Agencies. There are currently about 750 outfitters registered with the state.
Today the office receives more than one hundred complaints a year, about a quarter of which concern unregistered outfitters. Of those, Wells says that fewer than ten result in some form of discipline, ranging from a cease-and-desist order to criminal prosecution. "Any outfitter who has not been registered hasn't verified that he's bonded, insured and has first aid [certification]. There's a great lack of public protection, because there's no assurance those regulations have been met."
The other 75 or so complaints have to do with outfitters who promised services they never delivered and guides who mistreated horses or other animals during trips; sometimes hunters or fishers call when they suspect their outfitter has violated other laws or to report unsafe conditions in the outfitter's camp.
To conduct its investigations, the office contracts with Sivils, who has worked with Wells for five years. Although Wells says Sivils lives in Colorado, she didn't want to release any other information about him because of the nature of his work and the possibility of jeopardizing future investigations. Sivils couldn't be reached for comment.
Typically, though, he uses an assumed name to book a hunting or fishing trip with the guide or outfitter in question, Wells says. Although the Office of Outfitters Registration frequently works with the DOW, Wells says she uses a contract investigator for budget reasons. "We're not part of the DOW, so we want to conduct our own investigations, and sometimes they don't involve wildlife claims."
But other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Forest Service, do get involved sometimes, depending on the type and location of the suspected offense.
The investigation into Ruhr's business began in April 1998, when Sivils sent Ruhr a letter in which he pretended to be interested in hunting. "Dear Ron," the letter began, "A friend of mine sent me an article from the Denver newspaper about your goose-hunting trips. Please send your brochure, prices, date of season, where you hunt, etc."
Ruhr sent some information about his ser-vice to the Arizona address "Bill" had supplied, and the investigator sent him another letter in October 1998. "Sorry it took me so long to get back to you," Sivils wrote. "Send me some info. on the hunting season dates, where we would hunt, where we will stay, what type of shooting will it be? Will I need to bring my 3" Mag? What size shot should I bring? I would like to stay about three days. I'm looking forward to hunting with you, I have never hunted geese with decoys and call [sic] them in. Here in Arizona we just drive around to check the stock tanks and jump shoot them."
The two eventually set up a three-day hunt for the following season. In March 1999 they set out for Bent County (southeastern Colorado lies in the migration path of the snow geese). Ruhr prefers to hunt on private property because he has to compete with other hunters on public land. But getting permission to hunt on private land is no small task. A hunter has to earn a farmer's trust, and over the years, Ruhr has spent untold hours proving himself to landowners. He's done carpentry work, installed fencing, driven tractors and performed other odd jobs. Because of this, Ruhr has gained exclusive access to more than ten square miles of farmland in Bent County.
During their hunt, Sivils casually asked Ruhr questions about his company. Candid by nature and prone to talking about himself as often as possible, Ruhr readily answered all of the innocent-sounding inquiries. He was even open about his handshake relationship with Mile High Guide Services, he says, because he didn't think there was anything wrong with it.
But when Wells found out, she didn't like what she heard; she looked up Mile High Guide Services, only to discover that it wasn't registered with her office, either. "If Mile High had been negotiating contracts with clients and Ron was being paid by them, then there'd be a clear employee-employer relationship," she says. But when someone is negotiating prices and hunting trips without going through the outfitter, "it's clearly a separate outfitting business, and it gives the appearance that the guide is sidestepping his obligation as an outfitter."
The scope of the investigation escalated even further, though, when Sivils asked Ruhr to guide an antelope hunt for him. Ruhr says he told Sivils that he wasn't interested -- he's a waterfowl hunter, after all. But Ruhr says Sivils kept insisting, so he finally told him he'd try to set him up with an outfitter that specializes in big game. Ruhr now suspects that Sivils was trying to entrap him into committing a greater offense: Under state wildlife statutes, it's a felony to hunt big game without an outfitter registration.
At the end of the trip, Sivils told Ruhr that he'd had a great time and that he'd like to come back to Colorado the following season, with Ruhr as his guide. A few months later, Sivils and Ruhr set up a second trip for March 2000. This time, Sivils said he wanted to bring along a friend: undercover DOW investigator Dal Schaefer.
Schaefer says Sivils told him that he thought Ruhr wanted to guide a big-game hunt; since the DOW handles cases involving big game, he got called into the investigation. But Schaefer found no evidence that Ruhr was ever interested in going after anything bigger than birds. "The information that was brought to me by the [Office of Outfitters Registration] certainly didn't pan out. Ron has a huge ego, quite frankly, so perhaps he got carried away when they got to talking about antelope hunting and gave [Sivils] the impression he'd do it," Schaefer says.
Over the course of their two-day hunt, Sivils and Schaefer asked Ruhr more questions about his business and his personal life. They found out that his girlfriend of seven years lives with him, along with her daughter from a previous marriage, and that they're both out of the house by 9 a.m. on weekdays. They also went scouting with Ruhr to see where the geese stay after sundown so that they could return the next evening and hunt. Although it had been illegal in years past to shoot snow geese after sundown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was now allowing hunters to stay out thirty minutes past sundown to hunt for the first time in almost seventy years.
The two men commended Ruhr on his guiding skills and said they'd keep in touch.
A month later, Sivils called Ruhr and offered to take him and his family out to dinner in Longmont. When the night arrived, Sivils met Ruhr at his house, and as Ruhr always does when he entertains first-time guests, he offered Sivils a tour. The men lingered for the longest time in Ruhr's den, where he keeps most of his hunting gear along with his stuffed geese, collectible wooden duck decoys, antique shotguns, prints from the eighteenth-century British ornithologist George Edwards and leg bands from geese he's shot. The shelves of his den are lined with journals in which he keeps records of every hunt he's guided in the last dozen years, as well as books on hunting and canoeing, another of his outdoor hobbies.
After dinner, Sivils said he wanted to make a trip to Cabela's with Ruhr to thank him and because Sivils said he didn't like driving for long periods. Ruhr agreed, and, as he tells it, Sivils offered to buy him $100 worth of gear. They planned their outing for May 5.
A couple of weeks later, Ruhr noticed a green SUV that looked like Sivils's parked across the street from his house, but he didn't see Sivils and so didn't think much of it.
It wasn't until after the DOW officers searched his house that it all became clear. Ruhr believes Sivils asked him to dinner so he could look at Ruhr's house and note the items that later appeared on the search warrant.
Schaefer denies this, however, saying he decided what to put on the warrant while he was hunting with Ruhr. "We knew he kept meticulous records because he'd pull out a notebook every day and keep track of the hunt," Schaefer says, adding that he knew what guns and other hunting gear to seize since they were used during the trip.
Part of the DOW's file on Ruhr included photos of his house, which his attorney later showed him; after seeing the pictures, Ruhr realized that the photos were snapped from the exact spot where the green SUV had been parked. Ruhr figures Sivils took the pictures "so that they would know how to assault the stronghold that is Ron Ruhr's Out of the Blue hideout," he says sarcastically. "I don't know what they were expecting to find. Bald eagles in the freezer? Samson the elk's brother? They dismantled everything in my house. I couldn't have hidden a pistachio that they wouldn't have found."
Schaefer says he wasn't expecting to find anything that serious. He just wanted all of Ruhr's records so that if the case went to trial, he'd have evidence that Ruhr was publicly portraying himself as a guide. He points out that he found an outfitter registration application from 1995 in one of Ruhr's hunting logs, which he says is proof that Ruhr knew he should have been registered. He explains that the amount of manpower assigned to search the house was necessary because of the volume of records he expected to find. "The way this guy kept records, we figured he'd have a lot of stuff, and he did."
A neighbor of Ruhr's, 72-year-old Bill Sterkel, witnessed the search, though, and says he was shocked by the number of officers at the scene. "They were standing behind and peeking around the vehicles. They were also peeking through the cracks of the neighbor's privacy fence, as though shooting might start at any time," he says. "I started to ask an officer what had happened and was promptly ordered to remove myself, which I did. I have never seen such a show of force except maybe in a Rambo drug-bust movie."
The whole thing was slightly surreal for Ruhr since his late uncle, Jerome Stoudt, was an eminent waterfowl biologist who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1942 until 1973. As a child, Ruhr made the trip from his home in Buffalo, Minnesota, to visit his uncle in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where Stoudt took him hunting; Ruhr was seven years old when he shot his first duck, a blue-winged teal.
"He got me fascinated in the whole migrational mystery," Ruhr says. "He'd point up to the sky and tell me that the ducks flying overhead may have been in Canada earlier in the morning." In fact, his uncle ingrained in him a deep respect for wildlife officials and for a conservationist approach to hunting, and Ruhr grew up wanting to be a game warden. Instead, he became a geophysical technician and then a carpenter.
But his first love has always been the natural environment, and this past summer, Ruhr made two weeklong trips to Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, where he volunteered his time tagging trumpeter swans; the birds were nearly extinct seventy years ago before efforts were made to conserve them. He also belongs to the National Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.
In fact, Ruhr's commitment to waterfowl conservation has been recognized by renowned biologist Harvey Nelson, special consultant to the Minnesota Waterfowl Association and former director of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. In Ruhr's copy of Flyways: Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America, a book Nelson edited, the biologist inscribed the following note: "In appreciation of your interest and support of waterfowl and wetlands. You will recognize some of the 'characters.'" (Nelson was referring to an article in the book written by Stoudt.)
Ruhr's home is a shrine to waterfowl. Framed prints of duck paintings he bought at fundraising banquets for Ducks Unlimited decorate each room. He has maps in his den showing the central flyway states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and parts of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska and the Dakotas -- through which snow geese migrate. A wall clock has pictures of geese and ducks in place of numbers; every hour the clock chimes with the sound of a different bird. At four o'clock, the snow goose calls.
Ruhr became interested in snow geese twelve years ago after reading about the special techniques used to hunt the elusive birds. He learned that the snow goose population has been growing too fast for its own good; in the last ten years, the population of mid-continent snow and Ross geese -- which are smaller but otherwise identical to snow geese -- has more than doubled because of a surplus of cereal crops. Now their numbers are so high that they're destroying their nesting habitat in the Arctic and those of other waterfowl.
As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service jointly issued a conservation order three years ago to allow more days and fewer rules for hunting snow geese. This year in Colorado, the goose-hunting season ends in mid-February, but hunters will be allowed to shoot snow geese through the end of March. During the special conservation period, hunters can use electronic calls, which are prohibited during the regular hunting season, and shoot for thirty minutes past sunset. There is no limit on the number of snow geese that can be shot during that time.
After the DOW searched Ruhr's house, Rob Olson, assistant scientific director of the Manitoba-based Delta Waterfowl Foundation, which was the first organization to raise endangered trumpeter swans in captivity, wrote a letter on Ruhr's behalf: "I've known Ron Ruhr since September of 1999 and had the occasion to hunt with him. Ron is an outstanding waterfowler who really knows what he is doing. Ron is also keenly interested in waterfowl conservation and keeps in close contact with us here at Delta Waterfowl. I can't comment specifically on the situation that has occurred in Colorado because I don't know the details. However, I hope the authorities dealing with the 'situation' will take into account that we currently have an enormous overpopulation problem with the snow geese that Ron was hunting."
In late May, the DOW filed charges against Ruhr in Bent County's combined courts: two counts of acting as an unregistered outfitter -- one for the 1999 season, when he wasn't legitimately working under Mile High Guide Services, and one for the early part of this year, when Mile High Guide Services failed to renew its registration -- and one count of hunting after legal hours, for the time he took Sivils and Schaefer out after sundown.
Ruhr says the latter charge is bogus. He claims he had no intention of hunting that evening and had even unloaded his gun before the scouting trip.
But Schaefer tells a different story. "There were additional charges that could have been filed against him. I was posing as an out-of-state hunter, and I bought a two-day license that wouldn't be good until the next day. Ron said it was okay to go anyway, as long as we didn't get caught by a game warden," Schaefer says. "We set up decoys, he had his dogs out there, he was calling geese with a mouth call, and all three of us had loaded shotguns. We didn't catch any, but we were hunting. It was damn near an hour after shooting hours."
The DOW later dropped the hunting-after-hours charge, as well as one of the counts of operating without an outfitter registration, as part of a plea bargain.
In late October, Ruhr and Mile High Guide Services each paid a $500 fine to the Office of Outfitters Registration and $100 each to the DOW's Operation Game Thief fund. Additionally, Mile High Guide Services paid $5,220 in restitution to the Office of Outfitters Registration to cover the cost of the investigation, the majority of which constituted Sivils's salary ($4,328), the amount he paid Ruhr to go hunting, and travel expenses.
In return, Ruhr got a deferred sentence on the remaining count of operating without an outfitter registration. Once he completes his outfitter registration application, he'll be able to guide again in Colorado. His registration will then be scrutinized for a year, but if he commits no further violations during that time, the charge against him will disappear.
Mile High Guide Services was never charged with any crime and was recently reissued its outfitter registration after Nagel and Lingbeck paid their restitution.
"It's extortion," says Nagel, who had to borrow money to make the payment. "I take full responsibility for not renewing the registration. Maybe I'm a bad office manager, but should I pay $6,000 for that? What gets me is that we had to pay for Bill Sivils's hunting trip. Did it take him five or six days of hunting to find out that Ron wasn't registered?"
But Schaefer says Ruhr, Lingbeck and Nagel were treated more than fairly. "If I would have filed charges under [the state's] wildlife statutes, Ron would have gotten points against his hunting license, and he would have been prohibited from hunting for several years. After reading through all his records, I didn't see that he was a real threat to wildlife resources, so I filed charges under the Office of Outfitters Registration statutes [which carry lesser penalties].
"We bent over backwards for them to get legal. In a case like this, people usually never outfit again," he adds. "It's a good plea agreement, because we got their attention, but we're not putting them out of business. Ron is really knowledgeable about snow geese. The guy lives and breathes snow geese. I'd hate to see Ron not be able to hunt in Colorado. I had the option of taking that away, and I did not. For a change, I'm not sending someone to jail. It's nice to know that someone who cares about wildlife resources will be back."
Attorney Tom Lamm, who represented Ruhr and Mile High Guide Services, says everyone was at fault for the long, involved investigation. "Ron never should have assumed that $500 makes him an employee, and Andy should have sent in his registration. Nobody is covered in glory in this case," he says. "But my belief is that they were operating in good faith. My opinion is that this got blown out of proportion. If you're a wildlife officer and you're in a game habitat area and you see a truckload of people with loaded guns, you have a pretty good idea that they're bad guys. But if you see a newspaper article with pictures and everything and he's not on your list, it seems to me that instead of going undercover and spending lots of money on an investigation, you'd pick up the phone and say, 'Who are you?'"
"They didn't have to come down on me like I was someone in the Branch Davidians," Ruhr adds. "It's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. They need the sledgehammer because sometimes there's a raging bull they need to put down.
"But it's not me."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.