A trio of Montanans — including a Plains-based hunting outfitter — and one North Dakotan have been charged with illegally hunting and killing a mountain lion and trying to cover up the illegal hunt near White Sulphur Springs in 2013.

Ernie Jablonsky, 51, of Plains; Mitch Theule, 29, of Townsend; and Richard Ceynar, 34, of Williston, North Dakota, all entered not guilty pleas before Judge Jeremiah Lynch in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Nov. 28. The men have been charged with conspiracy to illegally hunt, kill and traffic mountain lions and illegal sale of outfitted mountain lion hunts. In addition, Jablonsky and Ceynar face false labeling charges.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the incident, with the assistance of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. All of the men could face five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

Montana resident James V. Day, who is already serving a five-year sentence for criminal possession of dangerous drugs in a Sanders County case, also pleaded not guilty to two felony counts in the same incident during an appearance in a Great Falls federal court on Nov. 14. Day’s attorney has petitioned to have any “confession” or “self-incriminating statement” that may have been collected by investigators suppressed, saying Day’s conversation with two FWP investigators was involuntary.

A trial has been set for Jan. 2 in Helena before Judge Sam Haddon.

The case

According to the charging documents, Jablonsky — who owns Montana Big Game Pursuits — agreed to take Ceynar and his Bakken oil field buddy on an $8,000 mountain lion hunting trip in the mountains near the small town of Checkerboard. That is not an area where Jablonsky was licensed to outfit hunts.

Day, who has two other criminal convictions, is alleged to have worked as a houndsman on the hunt for $200 a day. At the time he was also employed as an elk hunting guide for Jablonsky, as was Theule, the documents stated. Theule was allegedly paid $500 for helping on the hunt.

On Feb. 8, 2013, hounds treed a mountain lion. Day and Theule went to the site on a snowmobile while Jablonsky, Ceynar and his friend followed in a separate vehicle and got stuck in the snow. Using walkie-talkies, the two groups communicated about the hunt. Hiking the rest of the way, the trio arrived at dusk where the cat was treed.

According to the documents, Theule focused a large headlamp on the mountain lion so Ceynar could shoot it after legal shooting hours.

Mountain lion kills must be reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. According to the court filings, Jablonsky told Ceynar to report the hunt was not outfitted. Jablonsky also reportedly told Ceynar’s friend to write “two elk hunts” in the memo space of the $8,000 check he wrote for the hunt.

The lion was sent to a taxidermist and delivered to Ceynar’s North Dakota home where it was displayed. When Jablonsky submitted his 2013 Hunting Outfitter Client Report Log to the Montana Board of Outfitters, he did not list Ceynar as a mountain lion hunting client.

When contacted for comment, Jablonsky’s attorney, Michael Sherwood of Missoula, told The Billings Gazette that he was concerned this news story would “taint the jury” since readers will hear only one side of the story. He said more information concerning his client’s response to the charges would be revealed in pre-trial motions due by Dec. 11.

Outfitting board

Steve Gallus, executive officer for the Montana Board of Outfitters, said he could not comment on ongoing investigations by his department.

A check with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry showed that Jablonsky has been a licensed hunting outfitter in Montana since 2006. In that time there have been no recorded disciplinary actions against him.

Jablonsky did have a run-in with the Bureau of Land Management in the fall of 2011. According to BLM documents, Jablonsky was fined $250 for illegally cutting tree branches to hide one of three blinds that he set up on public lands. Jablonsky denied he encouraged his clients to use the blinds, instead saying they were for his girlfriend and a nonpaying client. Years earlier he was cited for illegally posting a no trespassing sign on public land near Winnett.

These incidents occurred in the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office, which in 2012 denied Jablonsky a commercial special recreation permit to guide hunters on BLM land. Jablonsky appealed the field manager’s decision, which was upheld by the Interior Board of Land Appeals, although one of the six administrative judges dissented.

Jablonsky’s Montana Big Game Pursuits website touts hunts on private lands in Central and Eastern Montana. “We have spent many years securing prime hunting leases for your best chance of success,” the website says. “Our operation is small, the land is large and our success rate is high. We take only a limited number of clients.”

Although the website says Jablonsky specializes in archery hunting for elk and deer, he also advertises mountain lion hunts “on a very limited basis. Best if hunter is available on call when conditions are right.” A seven-day mountain lion hunt is listed for $5,500.

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