BOZEMAN, Mont. - A Gallatin County jury found Dale Koelzer innocent of illegal hunting and possessing an illegally killed game animal, but found him guilty of wasting game meat.
Koelzer killed the bison on his land just outside of Yellowstone Park National Park last September. He was fined $320 and given a six month suspended sentence, following the early July trial. There is a chance he will lose his hunting and fishing privileges because of the violation.
His attorney, Bill Bartlett, said that decision will be handed down by Justice of the Peace Scott Wyckman at a hearing after presentation of written arguments on state laws about suspension of fishing and hunting privileges. Bartlett said Koelzer's license could be suspended for up to three years. Koelzer will be notified at that time if he will be required to make restitution for the value of the animal.
After shooting the buffalo, Koelzer first denied his part in the killing, telling Fish Wildlife and Parks officers he had seen moose hunters in the area the day before, He suggested they might have something to do with the slaying. Later, Koelzer admitted he shot the bull, fearing the animal was about to ram his pickup truck. He claimed he deceived Fish and Wildlife because he was under the impression they no longer had control over the buffalo. He cited three prior occasions when he shot troublesome buffalo on his land and had contacted the Montana Department of Livestock.
Koelzer testified he tried to herd the bull away from his barn twice with his pickup truck, and the third time the animal made a "half-charge" toward his truck.
"Buffalo aren't worth much," he said. "There are plenty of them. When my truck was in danger, too bad for the buffalo."
Koelzer went on to say he didn't like tree huggers, bunny lovers, FWP or buffalo and that none of them were welcome on his land.
The bison bull carcass was discovered by watchdog group Buffalo Field Campaign [formerly Buffalo Nations] members. The group notified the Montana Department of Fish, and Wildlife and a West Yellowstone Park Service officer after documenting the scene.
Last October Bartlett sent a letter to Deputy County Attorney Todd Whipple asking that trespassing charges be filed against the BFC members who were on Koelzer's land. No charges were filed.
From the start, Bartlett said he felt charges against Koelzer were "very defendable" because the "kill and call" Montana state law says a person in fear of molestation can kill a normally protected animal, and then notify FWP within 72 hours.
It was the 72- hour law which Bartlett argued should acquit his client of all charges.
"The statute contemplates the meat will be wasted if one waits 72 hours to call." Bartlett said on three previous occasions, when Koelzer had killed a buffalo and then contacted the MDOL, their workers took the carcasses to the city dump.
Koelzer said he felt that was a waste of the head and cape of the buffalo, so in this instance he phoned a friend saying he was welcome to come and remove them from the animal.
The friend; John Nunnes, testified that Koelzer told him the meat from the animal would not be worth butchering, because it was too old and gamey.
Bartlett said Koelzer did not want to go to trial and had requested a plea bargain stating he was guilty of wasting game, but not the other charges. He said Whipple was unwilling to accept the plea.
"I think the politics of this situation required that Dale go to trial; and that he must go on buffalo charges," Bartlett said. "There was a bunch of people who wanted that.
"I'm not unhappy with the result when you look at the big picture," he said. "But, as a practical matter, it doesn't fit. The whole thing is a mess. When the statute says you have 72 hours to call, in almost every instance that meat is going to be wasted. Dale waited 65 hours to call."
Bartlett said Koelzer has not shown interest in appealing the judgment.
"I don't think I was guilty of anything, but you have to go by what the jury decides, " the 80- year-old Koelzer said.
MDOL agents herd Yellowstone buffalo away from the land leased by ranchers from the Forest Service for grazing just outside Yellowstone Park for fear the buffalo will infect cattle with brucellosis, which some studies show may cause cows to abort. It also can infect humans as undulant fever.
Montana law states if its agents can't drive the animals back into the park, MDOL can kill them or round them up for slaughter.
The state officials say the main concern is that a single brucellosis infection could cost Montana its brucellosis-free status, which would cost ranchers millions of dollars in testing fees and result in a possible ban on Montana beef. Opponents of the state policy point out there is no known case of a buffalo infecting domestic cattle in the wild and that buffalo and cattle are never on Forest Service lands at the same time.