A five-year effort to prosecute a hunting-guide operation responsible for the illegal killing of close to fifty bobcats and a dozen mountain lions came to a muted close in federal court in Denver yesterday, as the last defendant in the case was sentenced for his part in the scheme. Nicholaus Rodgers, 31, was sentenced to 36 months of probation, including six months of home detention, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, a federal anti-poaching law.
The plea and the sentence didn't entirely convey the grotesque scope of the case, something that U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello was quick to acknowledge even as she imposed the light sentence. "I've been pretty lenient with you, and that's mostly because you have been cooperative with the government," she told Rodgers. "There was a lot of cruelty to animals that was involved in this case.... This conduct occurred over a significant period of time. This defendant played a significant role."
Rodgers had worked for Christopher Loncarich, an outfitter on the Western Slope who collected as much as $1,500 for bobcats and $7,500 for mountain lions killed by wealthy, so-called sportsmen. But as we reported last year, the hunts were usually rigged to guarantee an easy kill. Rodgers, Loncarich, and others involved in the scheme would capture the big cats in advance in leg traps or cages, then hobble 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.
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.
One veteran wildlife officer described Loncarich's operation as one of the worst poaching cases he'd seen in forty years on the job. Loncarich was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for masterminding the illegal hunts. Court documents suggest he devised the guaranteed-kill approach because his clients expected to be coddled, were too out of shape to hike and track game, and "just wanted to shoot animals without having to hunt them."
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In an emotional statement to the court before his own sentencing, Rodgers, who has no prior felony record, apologized for his role in capturing and wounding the cats. "I still can't believe I was involved in such unethical behavior," he said.
At the time he got involved with Loncarich, he explained, he was deeply in debt and about to lose his truck. He grew increasingly concerned about the poaching and agreed to cooperate with authorities several years ago; since that time, he's built his own business in Oregon and is raising a family. A turning point for him, he said, came with the capture of his last mountain lion, a "beautiful animal" that had outwitted him for three years. The plan was to keep the lion in a cage for two weeks, until the Utah season opened, but Rodgers persuaded the others to let the lion go. "I just hope he made it," he said.
Dozens of other bobcats and lions didn't make it. Rodgers attorney Lisa Wayne contended that her client would be adequately punished by having a felony conviction and not being able to possess a firearm for the rest of his life. But Judge Arguello responded that poaching was a serious crime, though it's not often treated that way. "If he hadn't cooperated, I probably would throw the book at him," she said.
As part of the conditions of his probation, Rodgers must complete 50 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine. Two daughters of Loncarich and another assistant hunting guide also received probation.