Bron Sanders is still listed on some of Tejon Ranch Company’s web pages as a hunting guide in their sports hunting program. He has sued the corporation, alleging ranch operations managers engage in illegal mountain lion poaching, making it a requirement of some employees’ jobs. Sanders is suing for lost wages and damages after being fired following, he says, a protest to the illegal activities. [Gayer photo]
By Patric Hedlund and Gary Meyer
Tejon Ranch Company (a Delaware Corporation) and Tejon Ranchcorp are being accused of ordering employees to illegally kill mountain lions on the historic ranch. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Bron Sanders, still listed on some Tejon Ranch websites as one of their hunting guides.
The suit says Sanders was hired in 2004 and given regular wage increases until December 2010, when he complained about being ordered to engage in illegal lion hunting as a condition of employment.
The suit names several individuals said to have participated regularly in illegal hunts at the ranch, allegedly at the direction of Don Geivet (vice president of ranch operations).
The suit also explains how the illegal hunts were conducted and how management policies defied California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) regulations. Because mountain lions are protected in the state of California, a depredation permit is required for each lion taken. There are strict conditions. For instance a hunt must begin from the site of a specific livestock attack and follow the tracks of the specific lion involved. The permits are said to be in effect for only a few days, and the carcass of the killed animal is to be surrendered to DFG within 24 hours of its death.
The suit alleges that Geivet coached his workers to use a single permit to kill multiple lions and told his personnel to ignore DFG guidelines.
Sanders claims Geivet ordered him not to surrender a carcass to the authorities.
Lions are exceptionally abundant at Tejon Ranch, a knowledgeable source explained, because food supply water supply and the unique habitat is capable of supporting far more lions than most areas of California.
The lion’s competitors for wildlife on Tejon Ranch Company property are the recreational hunters who purchase guided and unguided hunting privileges there, a significant source of revenue to the company. Hunts were sold in 2010 at prices from $1,000 to kill a wild pig to $20,000 for a trophy- class Bull Elk. Black bear hunts are sold for $4,500 and pronghorn antelope can be hunted and taken for $4,000.
The suit says when Bron Sanders objected to being asked to participate in the illegal killings, he began experiencing retaliation by his supervisors that eroded his earnings. So on December 9, 2010 Sanders reported “the unlawful conduct to Teri Bjorn in Tejon Ranch’s legal department. She told Mr. Sanders she would protect him from further retaliation.” Then, the suit relates, Bjorn discussed the unlawful hunting with Tejon Ranch CEO Robert Stine.
“Mr. Stine met with Mr. Geivet, the main culprit in the retaliation…. Mr. Geivet told Mr. Stine that Mr. Sanders was armed and should be considered dangerous.”
So, the suit says, “rather than investigate the illegal hunting, Mr. Stine agreed to terminate Sanders’ employment.”
Barry Zoeller, spokesperson for Tejon Ranch, would not answer specific questions, but issued this statement: “Mr. Sanders did not bring his allegations to the attention of senior management until after he was informed that he was going to be terminated for cause. However, upon learning of the allegations, we conducted a thorough internal investigation and had all parties involved interviewed by outside counsel. Based on that investigation and those interviews, we determined that the allegations were ridiculous and untrue."
This statement contradicts the suit, which states that on December 10 Sanders was fired, adding that prior to taking his concerns to Bjorn about the illegal hunting he had been issued guiding schedules and pass codes to the ranch gates, with specific jobs through December 12. It was not until he brought up the hunting and retaliation that he was fired.
The suit asks for lost wages, damages and attorney’s fees. The Associated Press reported Sanders seeks $500,000.
Zoeller’s statement also says: “We believe Tejon Ranch operates the finest hunting program in the West and does so in full compliance with all the rules and regulations mandated by the California Department of Fish and Game. We intend to vigorously defend our actions in court.”
Sanders’ attorney, Erik McLain, used harsh language in the “factual background,” section of the suit, saying that Tejon Ranch “prides itself on the ‘responsible stewardship of its land by placing principles of conservation and good stewardship at the core of everything it does….’”
McLain states: “These claims are…a sham. Tejon Ranch is not a responsible steward of the land, but rather engages in unlawful land use practices….”
McLain also alleges “the culture and motto on the Ranch with respect to the unlawful mountain lion hunting was, and remains, ‘shoot, shovel and shut up.’”
In an interview with The Mountain Enterprise, Department of Fish and Game Enforcement Information Officer Patrick Foy said his department became aware of Sanders lawsuit on Thursday, May 12. “We found out about it on Thursday and the L.A. Times published their story on Friday.” A DFG officer sent McLain’s detailed court filing to Foy and asked, “What do you think?”
“I told him, ‘there is a lot of detail here.’ We began our investigation the next day.”
The details revealed in the complaint include descriptions of lion killings with specific locations on Tejon Ranch property.
Asked about the likelihood that a perpetrator would have had ample time to remove evidence, Foy responded, “If the plaintiff [Sanders] really wanted to bring someone to justice for this, the best thing he could have done was give all of that detailed information to [the DFG] rather than reveal it in a lawsuit.”
Foy said the investigation is being conducted by DFG’s Fresno Law Enforcement Division.
The Mountain Enterprise (TME) contacted McLain Tuesday, May 18.
He said, “We aren’t talking to the media right now… There are some other things going on….”
TME: Are you in settlement talks with Tejon Ranch?
EM: No. We aren’t. But I’m not talking to the media right now. I don’t appreciate some of the things that have been printed.
TME: What specifically do you object to? As far as I can see, they are repeating mainly what is in your complaint as filed, other than a few comments from Barry Zoeller.
EM: As an attorney I am bound by ethical restrictions about what I can say. The complaint is very specific.
The Mountain Enterprise had confirmed that Bron Sanders was once employed as a police officer for the City of Taft. He worked in the jail. A former city councilman said Sanders was released from his employment there. A lawsuit was filed against him by a female prisoner. We asked McLain about that.
TME: What about the suit with Julie Doan? Did you know about the suit when you took Mr. Sanders on as a client?
EM: Who? I don’t know what that has to do with…
TME: You specifically said in the complaint that on December 9 Bron Sanders was not considered a dangerous person by Tejon Ranch, but on December 10, after 5 years of employment and immediately after he complained about retaliation by his supervisor, they began alleging he was an armed and dangerous person… That may make it relevant to your suit. I don’t see that anyone has published anything about that yet.
EM: That has nothing to do with this. If they want to try to bring that into court, all I can say is ‘good luck with that.’ I have no comment.
TME: We talked with Mr. Foy of DFG. He said if you really wanted to get Tejon Ranch for illegal activities regarding poaching mountain lion you would have given evidence to DFG before putting it out into the media.
EM: I take severe offense to that, I had nothing to do with splashing this into the media other than filing a lawsuit.
This is part of the May 20, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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