A Darby man accused of being the ringleader in what’s been called the largest bear poaching case in state history pleaded guilty to five felony counts Thursday in Ravalli County District Court.
James “Jimmy” Harrison, 62, will face a maximum of 45 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes sentences him on August 28, according to Deputy Ravalli County Attorney Thorin Geist.
There was no plea bargain in the case.
Harrison pleaded guilty to felony common scheme 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 one of three Ravalli County men charged in the case.
Richard Sublette, 56, of Hamilton, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges in May and was sentenced to 180 days in jail with 173 suspended. In addition, he paid $3,705 in fines and restitution and had his hunting privileges revoked for five years.
Kyle L. Whyard, 26, of Darby, also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges as part of a plea agreement that dropped an equal number of counts. He was sentenced to six months in jail, with all but 14 days suspended and required to pay $5,105 in fines and restitution. His hunting and trapping privileges were revoked for five years.
The men were charged following an investigation that began last June after Harrison called a game warden to report that his two hunting partners had killed a bear in the Trail Creek area of the Big Hole Valley. Harrison reported that both a male and female bear had been shot.
Before the warden could inspect the bears, state officials received an anonymous report that Harrison was in possession of a black bear just off the West Fork Road.
When the warden investigated, he found two bear carcasses 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.
Court records said Harrison was eventually confronted with a photograph of him setting up a bear baiting station and that he eventually offered details on nine bears he was involved in killing in Ravalli and Beaverhead counties between 2009 and 2014.
Using bait to attract bears or any predator is illegal in Montana.
Harrison was convicted last year of bear-baiting and other illegal activities in Beaverhead County.
He remains free on his own recognizance until sentencing.