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Saco ranch family pleads guilty to illegal hunting

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP)--Three members of a north-central Montana ranch family have pleaded guilty to charges that they ran an illegal hunting operation for out-of-state residents.

Federal prosecutors said the scheme ran for five years and was discovered in 2003. Investigators have seized mounts of poached animals from dozens of clients who participated in the illegal hunts on the ranch near Saco.

Leo Bergtoll, 74, pleaded guilty Feb. 5 to felony conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, which regulates the sale, transportation and purchase of wildlife. Anna Lou Bergtoll, 68, and their son, Darrel Bergtoll, 44, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act.

Prosecutors say the Bergtolls worked with Anthony Bazile, 60, of Braithwaite, La., who recruited clients for hunting trips on the Bergtolls' ranch. Bazile has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and is scheduled to go to trial on April 6.

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Anderson of Missoula said in court documents that the Bergtolls worked with Bazile to run a hunting business on their cattle ranch.

Bazile recruited clients for weeklong hunting trips. Prosecutors say he charged $800 per person to apply for a Montana landowner-sponsored buck deer license. Bazile would forward the client's name and $300 of the application fee to Anna Lou Bergtoll. She would submit the client's name for the license drawing. Darrel Bergtoll, who owns a separate parcel of land nearby, also would submit client names for licenses on his property, even though the clients hunted on his parents' ranch, court records said.

If clients didn't get a license, Bazile urged them to come to Montana anyway and assured them they would have a license, Anderson said. The clients each paid another $1,200 outfitting fee when they arrived at the ranch.

The Bergtolls applied for their own resident hunting licenses and paid their employees $100 to buy resident licenses to be used by out-of-state hunters, court records said.

The Bergtoll ranch had about 20 permanent wooden hunting blinds, a bunkhouse for clients and vehicles for Bazile and clients, court records said.

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