BUTTE - The U.S. Forest Service is investigating the filming of a reality television series featuring Montana game wardens because it appears at least one segment was filmed in the Bitterroot National Forest without a permit, Northern Region spokesman Brandan Schulze said.
The issue was raised after a Whitehall man who had been acquitted of state charges, including outfitting without a license, was charged last month with two federal counts of filming bighorn sheep hunts on public lands in 2008 without a permit.
The state charges were filed against John Lewton after an undercover investigation in which a state game warden shot a trophy bighorn ram. Lewton's defense was that he was filming the hunts.
Helena attorney Jack Morris said it appeared the state was bent on getting a conviction against Lewton and questioned whether Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wardens might have been involved in illegal filming during the taping of the television series called "Wardens" now airing on The Outdoor Channel.
Steve Puppe, owner of Muddy Boot Productions, filmed the episodes that highlight the work of state game wardens. He told The Montana Standard he had all the permits for state lands, where the majority of the show took place, but given the nature of the show, he never knew where he and the warden he was following would end up.
"We don't have a problem doing it," Puppe said. "We just don't know in advance where we're going to be."
Puppe said he was seeking the permit to resolve the issue.
Bitterroot National Forest lands program manager Roylene Gaul said she spoke with Puppe on Wednesday and he did not know about the permit requirement for national forest lands.
"It's not OK to get the permit after the fact," she said. "If he is filming to sell his films as a commercial photographer, he has to have a permit on national forest land."
FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency understood that Puppe had all the needed permits for national forest lands in western Montana.
The filming permits cost $150 per day plus a $110 application fee.
Puppe said it was unrealistic to expect him to get permits in advance for every day of filming when he may never end up on Forest Service land.
"I couldn't go and buy one and say I'll need it for 365 days," he said. "I couldn't afford that."