A federal magistrate judge in Pierre on Thursday sentenced Dugan Traversie to a year of probation, a year without hunting, and to pay restitution of $9,000 to the Timber Lake Elk Ranch where he poached a whitetail buck with a freakishly huge set of antlers.
The incident on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation last fall got a lot of attention, because such “high-fence” hunting operations are controversial among hunters.
Also, more immediately, because Traversie used social media to post a photo of himself triumphantly posed with the massive deer head soon after he shot it, which led to lots of comments.
“I am very, truly, truly sorry for poaching the whitetail deer when it wasn’t deer season,” Traversie told U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Moreno on Thursday, June 4, before the sentence was handed down. “I just ask for the opportunity to prove to this court that it will never, never happen again.”
He is from Whitehorse, a small town not far from the Timber Lake Elk Ranch. According to court documents, he also in the past few months has lived in Eagle Butte, where the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is headquartered.
Traversie, who is 39 and runs a cattle operation on the reservation, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and agreed to be sentenced at the same hearing on Thursday when he pleaded guilty to a violation of the federal Lacey Act.
It is a misdemeanor federal crime involving illegally taking and possessing a wild animal out of season without a license, breaking the hunting laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, of which he is an enrolled member, Moreno told him.
A second count, of larceny, for stealing and purloining the deer which was the property of the privately owned Timber Lake Elk Ranch, was dismissed as part of the plea agreement by prosecutor Meghan Dilges, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Traversie was charged by indictment in February with the two counts and at first pleaded not guilty. The charges could have meant up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, prosecutors said.
On Thursday, Dilges told Moreno that the Timber Lake Elk Ranch, a huge, 8,000-acre game ranch that sells hunts for elk, deer and buffalo, had bought the whitetail buck for $9,000 last year from a North Dakota deer farm.
The Timber Lake ranch had clients ready to pay $25,000 to hunt that buck when the season opened in early November, Dilges told the judge. In a sort of aside, she said: “Why anyone would want to pay that much money to hunt a deer, I don’t know. It is a very large deer with a very large set of antlers.”
Many people do want to pay for such huge trophy hunts, as the “high-fence” hunting preserves have sprung up across the country the past two decades. But the idea also is wildly unpopular among many hunters who say it violates a basic ethic of giving wild animals a fair shot at escape in a hunt.
Traversie, apparently on Oct. 28, shot the buck through the fence of the Elk Ranch. The next day, he came back, got inside the fenced ranch and cut the head off the dead buck and threw it back over the fence. He then “tied it up underneath a bridge nearby,” Dilges said.
The land next to the private hunting ranch is tribal land requiring a hunting license from the tribe, of which Traversie is an enrolled member. The tribal hunting season wasn’t open yet when Traversie shot the buck, from outside the fence of the private ranch.
The ranch had a hunt planned for the big buck. When they couldn’t find it where it had been recently seen, they searched closely and found the decapitated body where Traversie left it.
Once law enforcement got on the case, Traversie “did fully cooperate,” and showed where the deer head was so it was recovered, Dilges told the judge.
Moreno told Traversie he believed he truly was remorseful and that he showed it by cooperating with law enforcement and so he would not get any prison time.
Moreno ordered Traversie to serve one year of probation and to pay $9,000 in restitution to the Timber Lake Elk Ranch and took away his hunting privileges — anywhere, including any licenses from state, federal and tribal governments — for a year.
Although the plea agreement had included fining Traversie $2,500, Moreno dismissed that feature, citing Traversie’s straitened financial condition which qualified him for a court-appointed attorney.
Through his attorney, Edward Albright, a federal public defender, Traversie said he had brought $500 to pay Thursday toward his restitution and promised to pay at least $75 a month, with larger amounts when he sells calves. Moreno so ordered the restitution payment schedule. He said interest will not accrue on Traversie’s restitution bill, again, because that seems like “piling on,” more financial burden Traversie doesn’t need.
The Timber Lake Elk Ranch is owned and operated by the Lindskov family which has large farming and ranching operations in the area. The 8,000 acres, or 12.5 square miles, would comprise an area of about 3.5 miles by 3.5 miles if it was a square.
The hunting ranch is about 45 miles southwest of Mobridge, on the reservation. Such “high-fence hunting” operations usually use management practices that result in animals with huge “trophy” racks much larger than found in the wild.
The Timber Lake Elk Ranch advertises hunts for whitetail and mule deer, as well as elk and buffalo.
On its website, the owners have written: “Since 1934, the Lindskov Family has been caring for this land we call home. Located on 8,000 acres of pristine western South Dakota prairie, the Timber Lake Elk Ranch has grown to be one of the largest privately owned elk, buffalo and deer herds in the world with more than 700 head.”