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Six charged with illegally hunting and baiting black bears

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By Marcy Stamper
Methow Valley News

“I would call it a conspiracy,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of operations for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police. “We’ve been receiving tips for years that these people are involved in these types of violations."

A man with a vacation cabin on Cub Creek was charged by the Okanogan County prosecuting attorney on April 10 with illegally baiting and hunting black bears.

James L. Erickson, 52, of Eatonville, Wash., faces 34 counts of bear baiting in 2010 and 2011 and four counts of unlawful hunting of big game. Both offenses are gross misdemeanors.

Three members of Erickson’s family and two friends face similar charges but many fewer counts. The charges against them were filed March 5.

In addition to the bear-baiting and unlawful hunting charges, Erickson is charged with unlawful trapping, unlawfully transporting wildlife or big game, hunting without a license, possession of a stolen camera and hunting big game with a light after dark.

“I would call it a conspiracy,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of operations for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police. “We’ve been receiving tips for years that these people are involved in these types of violations. This camp is known as a place where big-game violations are involved.”

Erickson had control over the camp and invited people to hunt, and the others were not hunting with ignorance that the area was baited, said Cenci.

Court documents in the Erickson case include affidavits and reports from half a dozen wildlife officers who provide detailed accounts of surveillance and searches of the Cub Creek property; Erickson’s primary residence in Eatonville, Wash.; interrogations of him and the others; and vivid descriptions of evidence they seized. Investigations began as early as 2005 and picked up when citizen complaints of illegal baiting increased. The most intensive investigations occurred in 2010 and 2011.

An incident report form by WDFW wildlife officer Cal Treser says he began to investigate the case in 2005 after receiving complaints about bear baiting and trespassing by Erickson. Treser wrote that he was notified again in 2011 that Erickson was still baiting bear and visited the property on several occasion, finding evidence that bait had been eaten and replenished. He also saw 15 snags of bear hair on a fence.

Erickson had a video camera on his property that captured multiple images of him and others placing bait near the cabin. The defendants are alleged to have used grain; dog food; bacon grease; fish and ducks; Krispy Kreme doughnuts; and butchered piglets, chipmunks and squirrels as bait.

“Baiting of bear, even attracting, is unlawful. The reason for this is that bears brought in by artificial food sources create dangerous wildlife encounters,” wrote WDFW officer Dan Christensen in an incident report last July. “Other residents of the area are then left with bears that are conditioned to human food and lose a natural fear of humans. The bears then create nuisance and even potentially dangerous encounters.”

Other evidence cited in the court documents include thousands of digital photos and videos, a bucket with teeth marks, tufts of black-bear hair caught in a fence, trails of blood and indications that a bear had been dragged through the woods, scat containing grain, and piles of bear guts and lungs. Investigators also seized bear hide and meat from a meat-storage facility.

In addition, there are journal entries by Erickson and his guests that describe their success in shooting bears close to the house, including “a bear that was kind enough to meander near camp” shot “before I got my shoes on,” according to a September 2010 entry by defendant Brent Kerr.

Erickson is also charged with possession of a video camera that was reported stolen in 2004 by his Cub Creek neighbor Laurene Ryan. Ryan had installed the camera because she believed Erickson was repeatedly cutting her fence and a locked chain and driving across her property. A pair of bolt cutters was seized from Erickson’s cabin to be compared with the marks on the fence and lock.

An undercover agent working with WDFW wrote accounts of visits with several of the defendants in 2005 and 2008, when they traded stories about how to skirt hunting regulations. The suspects also described setting out bait for bears.

WDFW is involved in a few such prosecutions each year, but Cenci said the number of arrests is low compared with how much of this activity occurs. “Trying to catch somebody requires timing and a little bit of luck,” he said.

Others charged in the case are Lois Erickson (James’ wife), 53; a son, Justin Erickson, 22; a daughter, Jessica Erickson, 22; Brent Kerr, 24; and Zachary Banks, 22. All are from Eatonville except Banks, who is from Pasco. All face three or four counts of hunting black bear with bait and unlawful hunting of big game.

All offenses are gross misdemeanors or misdemeanors. Penalties for bear baiting are up to one year in prison and up to a $5,000 fine, a five-year suspension of hunting privileges; an additional $2,000 wildlife assessment per animal illegally killed; and shorter jail terms and fines for the lesser offenses. Most Western states have an agreement to honor a suspension of hunting privileges in Washington, said Cenci.

A status conference is set in Okanogan County District Court on May 15 for James Erickson and on May 29 for the others. At the status conferences, they will either set trial dates or the defendants may request more time or enter motions of their own, according to Okanogan County deputy prosecutor Clay Hill.
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