The investigation that eventually led to the poachers punishment is straight from a TV crime drama.
It all started in 2010 when five Washington state men shot a trophy bull elk on property owned by the Cobb Ranch in Augusta, Montana. The ranch is located in a hunting district that is closed to bull elk hunting. The poachers repeated the act in 2011 and 2013, taking a total of six illegal trophy bulls.
The investigation began in April 2014 when Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks agents received a complaint about elk carcasses found on the Cobb Ranch. The elk had been quartered and the heads were removed, but FWP agents were able to link one of the kill sites to November of 2013 based on tag information left at the scene. Investigators then compared the approximate date of the kill with records at the Augusta check station, where hunters are required to check all deer and elk kills.
The poachers hadn’t checked their elk, but they had checked deer taken in the same area. At this point, FWP investigators obtained a warrant to search one of the suspects’ homes. They collected DNA samples from elk antlers and photos taken by the poachers at the kill sites. After hours and hours of searching they were able to use the photos to find the exact locations the pictures were taken and the antler DNA matched DNA found at the kill sites.
The successful investigation of the 2013 kills led to investigations into elk shot in the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
The poachers were ordered to surrender the elk antlers and stripped of Montana hunting privileges for five years. They were found guilty of various charges including: failure to stop and report at a check station, hunting during a closed season, unlawful possession, and hunting over the limit. The poachers fines total over $41,000.