HAMILTON -- The alleged ringleader in what’s been called the largest illegal bear poaching case in state history has been charged with five felonies.
James “Jimmy” Harrison, 61, of Darby, has yet to appear on the felony counts.
Harrison and two other Ravalli County men were originally charged with misdemeanors for illegally killing nine black bears with the aid of bait last July.
Richard Sublette, 56, of Hamilton, and Kyle L. Whyard, 26, of Darby, still face misdemeanor charges that could cost them thousands in restitution and fines.
Whyard is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Dec. 18 before Ravalli County Justice of the Peace Jim Bailey.
The Ravalli County Attorney’s Office filed felony charges against Harrison Nov. 25 following a review of the case.
The charges include a common scheme charge of unlawful possession of a game animal for nine bears killed between 2009 and 2014. Additional felony counts include tampering with a witness, two counts of tampering with public records and tampering with photographic evidence.
Harrison is scheduled to appear on the charges Dec. 15.
According to the affidavit, the case against Harrison got underway June 5 when he called a game warden to report that Whyard and Sublette had each killed a bear in the Trail Creek area of the Big Hole Valley.
Harrison said the male and female bear had been killed in close proximity to one another.
The warden made arrangements to inspect the bears the next day in Darby.
Later that evening, state officials received an anonymous call saying Harrison was in possession of a black bear just off the West Fork Road.
The warden responded and found two bear carcasses that were dumped near Trapper Creek Road. The male and female animals had large chunks of meat removed, but still possessed large quantities fit for human consumption.
One of the bears still had Whyard’s bear license taped to its rear leg.
A professional butcher inspected the animals. He found that 30 to 40 percent of the consumable meat had been taken from one bear and about half from the other.
On Whyard’s Facebook page, the warden found photos labeled “Spring Bear Hunt 2014.” Photos depicted Whyard with two bears strapped to his ATV. Neither bear appeared to be gutted.
When the warden met with Whyard at the Triple Creek Ranch, Whyard said his bear was killed in Trail Creek in Beaverhead County. The two traveled to the alleged kill site, where Whyard showed the warden two gut piles.
The warden showed Whyard the photos from his Facebook page that showed the bears on his ATV being loaded into a pickup truck.
The warden then pointed out the absence of any truck or ATV tracks at the kill site. He also asked for an explanation of why the bears did not appear gutted in the photos.
Whyard declined to speak further without an attorney.
Harrison initially told the warden the bears were killed in Trail Creek, but three days later admitted to moving the animals from the actual kill site to another location.
The warden then showed Harrison a photo he had received from another warden that was taken by a game camera positioned near a bear baiting station in Beaverhead County.
Harrison admitted to being the person in the photograph setting up the bear baiting station.
Using bait to attract bears or any predator is illegal in Montana.
The affidavit said Harrison then offered details on nine bears he was involved in killing in Ravalli and Beaverhead counties between 2009 and 2014.
Harrison was convicted on bear baiting-related charges and other illegal hunting activities in Beaverhead County in August.