Colorado's Worst Poaching Case and the Decline of Hunting

A few weeks ago a 56-year-old hunting guide on the Western Slope was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for violations of the Lacey Act. Christopher Loncarich's crime consisted of going to absurd lengths to insure that the slaughter of mountain lions and bobcats in Utah and Colorado would be a profitable and painless procedure -- profitable for the guide and painless for the so-called hunters, that is, not the cats.

The details of Loncarich's operation are disgusting. One Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer called it one of the worst poaching cases he's seen in forty years on the job. Yet the case has received little media attention -- even though it says something truly disturbing about the perverse, debased direction trophy hunting across the West seems to be headed in the twenty-first century.

See also: Photos of the Day: Massive Ivory Crush Intended to Raise Awareness of Elephant Poaching

Except for an occasional surge of interest in bad economic times, recreational hunting has been in gradual decline across America for decades. The reasons offered for this range from loss of habitat to rising costs to changing lifestyles, but it's hardly a surprising phenomenon. If you're not out there killing animals to put meat on the table, like some woodsy throwback in a Faulkner novel, just about the only rational justification for going to so much trouble -- driving for hours before dawn, freezing your ass off in some forlorn backcountry, stalking a beast through muck and mire and field-dressing it and hauling out your kill -- is the much-exalted sport of it all, what ethical hunters tend to call "the code of fair chase."

Those who want to increase the sporting edge tend to go in for bows and other retro weaponry. Those who don't much relish the drudgery of hunting but have money to burn tend to go the opposite direction, with snowmobiles and guides and high-tech tracking gear.

There was nothing sporting about the hunts arranged by Loncarich. According to the indictments issued against him, his daughters Caitlin and Andie Loncarich, and assistant guides Marvin Ellis and Nicholaus Rodgers, the services offered by the outfitters included capturing bobcats and mountain lions in leg traps or cages, then hobbling 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 Cliff Mountains in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Between 2007 and 2010, eighteen clients paid Loncarich between $3,500 and $7,500 each for lions, between $700 and $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 in Mack, Colorado, 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.

How much did the clients know about the way their guides were smoothing the way for them? That isn't clear. Three hunters have paid a total of $13,100 in fines over the mess, but others may have been completely clueless. Some probably didn't care either way, as long as they got their kill on time. 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 and a burning desire to add to the trophy wall in their man-cave.

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."

Out-of-shape, coddled wealthy people who "just want to shoot animals without having to hunt them." Shades of Francis Macomber. Ernest Hemingway made sport of the great white hunters who had no sense of sport, but now they're the professional guide's meal ticket. Are they the future of hunting?

"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."

In addition to prison time and probation, Loncarich faces a possible lifetime ban on hunting and fishing in Colorado and 43 other states. His daughters pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and received probation and community service for their role in the scheme. Ellis got six months of home detention and a fine and forfeited his truck. Rodgers, who also pleaded guilty to a Lacey Act violation, will be sentenced on January 6. Have a tip? Send it to [email protected]

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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