A Montana district court judge sentenced an Idaho man Tuesday to 100 days in jail and $25,000 in fines after pleading guilty to buying wildlife carcasses and parts from an undercover game warden in Beaverhead County.
Yan “Bo” Fong of Pocatello will also lose his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for six years under the sentence for felony counts of unlawful sale of a game animal and unlawful possession of a game animal.
On three occasions over 2017 and 2018, Fong met with an undercover game warden in Dillon under the pretense that the warden had illegally killed wildlife to sell. Fong is alleged to have paid $3,800 for bear gallbladders, paws and carcasses, multiple mountain lion and bobcat carcasses and an elk and two mule deer carcasses.
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Bear gallbladders are used in traditional Asian medicines, but their sale is illegal in Montana due to potential to illegally traffic them. Bear paws are also considered an edible delicacy, and demand for bear paws and gallbladders has led to a number of prosecutions nationally for illegally killing bears and trafficking in their parts.
Fong, who at the time owned the Bamboo Garden restaurant in Pocatello, reportedly told the undercover game warden he offers the bear and mountain lion meat free to “the tour guide and bus people,” and that “Chinese people like the animal meat,” charging documents say.
The restaurant has since closed.
In addition to the case in Montana, Fong has pleaded not guilty to charges for wildlife-related crimes in California and Idaho.
Fong initially pleaded not guilty in Montana to three felony counts of unlawful sale of a game animal and three felony counts of unlawful possession, shipping or transportation of a game animal or fur bearing animal. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to a single count of each in an agreement with prosecutors. The agreement stipulated that prosecutors would request five years in prison, a $15,000 fine and the loss of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for six years.
Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was emotional at times as the defense pushed against prison time and Fong’s wife promised that he would never again commit a crime, while prosecutors and investigating game wardens emphasized the egregiousness of the offenses as theft from Montanans.
Montana Department of Justice Attorney Dan Guzynski told the judge Fong was a successful businessman, owned multiple restaurants and had a lovely family, “but it wasn’t enough, your honor, it was greed that propelled Mr. Fong’s actions.” Guzynski said that prison was an appropriate portion of the sentence in the case.
Defense attorney Brent Flowers argued that while he applauded the work of game wardens and was not minimizing laws protecting wildlife, the most severe sentences are typically reserved for serious poachers. Fong was a nonviolent offender with no previous criminal history, he told the court, and has suffered the loss of his livelihood and the shame of felony convictions.
“I do think it is far, far too harsh for the state at the prompting of (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks) to push a prison sentence for something that did not involve the actual killing of animals,” Flowers said.
Flowers further argued that game wardens had chosen to increase the charges in the case by dictating the number of wildlife carcasses or parts offered to Fong and for meeting with him on multiple occasions rather than arresting him after the first sale.
Fong, speaking through an interpreter, addressed the court.
“I only want to say that I’m very sorry because I have violated the law in Montana,” he said. “So I’ll accept the punishment.”
Beaverhead County District Court Judge Luke Berger offered a detailed rationale before levying the sentence, saying he believed had a game warden not offered the animals for sale, someone would have stepped in to fill the void and supply the parts regardless of the law.
“Mr. Fong, I am not going to allow the blame to be passed around here, you committed a crime, you committed multiple crimes,” the judge said.
But Berger also pointed to serious and intentional poaching cases as well as serious crimes against people, saying he had to consider those sentences when crafting Fong’s. Ultimately Berger went against the state’s recommendation of prison time, sentencing Fong to 10 years with all but 100 days in the Beaverhead County Jail suspended, but also increased the financial penalty with an additional $10,000 in fines plus court charges.
Berger also noted that Fong must still face prosecutions in California and Idaho.
Fong is part of a 19-count indictment in California which includes four felonies and 15 misdemeanors. The indictment includes a co-defendant identified as 54-year-old Rui Neg Zhao on one felony and one misdemeanor charge.
California prosecutors allege that on three dates in 2019 Fong purchased, possessed, sold or imported wildlife parts or meat illegally. The list includes bear gallbladders and paws, fish, waterfowl, mountain lions and ivory.
Fong and Zhao have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In Idaho, Fong is facing 75 misdemeanor charges stemming from two dates in 2019. Ten of the charges are under failing to obtain a taxidermist or fur buyer’s license statutes while the remaining 65 charges fall under illegal possession, transport or shipment of wildlife or wildlife parts statutes.
“Wildlife trafficking is a serious threat to our resources,” FWP Enforcement Chief Dave Loewen said. “We take these cases very seriously and do everything we can to thoroughly investigate and prosecute those responsible.”