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On its "Wildlife Management" website, hunting guide Bron Sanders was described as having "...proven success rate with pigs, deer and turkey. Bron has also become a real asset when it comes to hunting elk and antelope. But his new passion is wild turkey hunting. Bron takes his hunting seriously and works extremely hard to make your hunt successful and rewarding." [Tejon Ranch public website excerpt]
By Patric Hedlund
Controversy was rumbling throughout the state this week after Deputy District Attorney John Mitchell said on February 10 that Tejon Ranch Company has settled a suit for illegally killing at least 11 protected mountain lions. Mitchell issued a statement saying Tejon Ranch has agreed to pay $136,500 to settle the lawsuit filed by the Kern County D.A.’s office for unfair business practices.
Evidence and testimony by former hunting guide Bron Sanders was central to findings turned over to the D.A. by the California Department of Fish and Game. Sanders said he had personally killed 11 lions illegally.
In a wrongful termination lawsuit against Tejon Ranch—filed in May 2011, separately from the D.A.’s action—Sanders alleges that Tejon’s former Vice President of Ranch Operations Don Geivet had ordered he and other employees to kill mountain lions illegally.
Sanders’ lawsuit alleges that Geivet, who had managed the ranch for 39 years until retirement last year, told him to use a depredation permit meant for one lion to kill many others, and to violate the Department of Fish and Game requirement that the pelt of a mountain lion be surrendered to the agency.
“Shoot, shovel and shut up,” is the term used by Sanders’ attorney for the alleged practice of killing multiple lions under one permit and burying them. The suit also alleges that over a hundred lions were killed illegally on the ranch. It goes into detail, and names other hunting guides who allegedly participated under Geivet’s orders.
Mitchell said the one-year statute of limitations for criminal liability against any individual has passed, but the D.A.’s office was able to file a civil suit under California’s Business and Professions Code, Section 17200 (unfair competition). Mitchell explained. “If a business is breaking the law they are getting an unfair business advantage. That gives us an opportunity to make sure businesses follow the rules and regulations. Once it turned out that Tejon employees were killing lions illegally, we decided to file the suit.”
Mitchell said according to their evidence, it was ranch personnel, not sports hunters, who had killed the lions illegally: “There was never any information to us at any time that anyone other than ranch employees had killed the lions,” Mitchell said.
But Sanders’ lawsuit alleges that some “hunting members who leased various hunting areas… were also asked to participate in unlawful hunts….”
There is now a permanent injunction against the ranch, “and it is like they are on probation for three years,” explained Mitchell. During that time the company will pay $100,000 in penalties; $21,500 to reimburse the Department of Fish and Game for the cost of their investigation; and $15,000 to Kern County Animal Control.
“They will have to pay $6,000 per lion if they violate the injunction,” Mitchell said.
Tejon Ranch spokesman Barry Zoeller said, “Our decision to voluntarily suspend the commercial hunting program so that it can be re-evaluated and reorganized as necessary… will take several months and there will be no access until the process is complete,” but he said scheduled Department of Fish and Game hunting and navigation clinics will proceed as scheduled.
“We are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure nothing like this happens again,” Zoeller said.
In publications such as the Sacramento Bee, responses from readers ranged from “Tejon Ranch gets away with murdering mountain lions,” by Jim Cather of Loomis, CA who argued “there should be arrests, jail time, firings and major fines” to “Rest assured, the hunting activities at the Tejon Ranch will be scrutinized for decades,” by Cristopher James Blasco of Newport Beach.
The Mountain Enterprise received calls from hunters from San Diego County up to San Francisco vowing that, in their experience, the Tejon Ranch hunting program has been conducted with scrupulous observation of Department of Fish and Game regulations. Many said they found it hard to believe that it was possible for illegal killing of mountain lions to have taken place.
In a statement, Zoeller expressed “deep regret that such incidents took place on Ranch property…. Tejon Ranch has zero tolerance for such activity, which has been long-standing company policy.”
But in May Zoeller flatly denied the charges: “we conducted a thorough internal investigation and had all parties involved interviewed by outside counsel…. we determined that the allegations were ridiculous and untrue.”
Last week he again claimed the killing had taken place “without the knowledge of senior management.”
It is unclear whether he is saying that the vice president of ranch operations is not a senior management position.
Deputy D.A. Mitchell said the company was “very cooperative and helpful” in the settlement process.
This is part of the February 17, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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