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Texas Man Pays Big Fine for Illegal Killing of Trophy Elk

September 28, 2007

A Texas man has paid nearly $12,000 for illegally killing a bull elk in the wrong game management unit and then lying about the location to officers from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Mitchell Phelps, 46, of Athens, Tex., shot a six-point bull elk while archery hunting on Sept. 16, in game management unit 61, a prized limited-license area on the west side of the Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose. Phelps license, however, allowed him to hunt only in game management unit 62 located just to the northeast of where he was hunting.

"A unit 61 elk license is highly prized, it's a big deal when a hunter draws one, people wait years to draw those licenses," said Renzo Delpiccolo, area wildlife manager for the DOW in Montrose. "So when someone sneaks into the wrong unit and kills a trophy animal, that's a serious crime."

Ryan Swygman, district wildlife manager in the area, was on routine hunting patrol on Sept. 16 when he saw an elk rack in the back of a pick-up truck. Swygman stopped to inspect the elk and became suspicious when he saw that the carcass tag had not been attached to the animal properly and had not been voided. A youngster got out of the truck and explained that his father had killed the animal and that he was on his way out with the meat.

Swygman decided to wait for the man.

When Phelps arrived he told Swygman that he had shot the elk in unit 62 but that the animal had run more than a mile into unit 61 where it died. Swygman asked the man to take him to the site and he inspected the carcass remains. Swygman examined the animal and saw that the man had made an excellent shot, piercing the lungs and the heart with an arrow.

"When an animal gets shot in the heart and lungs, it usually can't run very far," Swygman explained.

When Swygman explained that to Phelps, the man continued to insist that the animal ran a long distance. During the interview wildlife officers Mark Caddy and Tony Bonacquista arrived to assist with the investigation. Phelps agreed to meet the officers the morning of Sept.18 at the sheriff's office in Delta where the questioning would continue.

The officers also talked to another man in Phelps' hunting party who had become lost in the area the night before while packing out a portion of the elk his friend had shot. The officers had assisted the local sheriff's office in a search for the man and helped to locate him. The man, who was familiar with the area, told the officers that he had explained the location of the game management unit boundaries to Phelps.

When the officers talked to Phelps in Delta they told him that with the evidence they had that he could be charged with several violations. They explained that he would have to come back to Colorado for a trial, and if he was found guilty could face jail time and fines of more than $20,000.

When confronted with the evidence, the man finally decided to cooperate and admitted that he had shot the animal illegally. He pleaded guilty to illegal possession of wildlife and for failing to tag the animal properly. He was not allowed to keep the antlers or the meat. He was also assessed with an automatic surcharge of $10,000 for killing a trophy-class animal under Colorado's Samson law.

Phelps paid $11,702 in fines and was assessed 35 penalty points against his hunting privileges which could prohibit him from hunting for up to five years. In Colorado, accumulation of 20 penalty points leads to a license-suspension hearing and the possibility of losing hunting and fishing privileges for up to five years. Colorado also participates with other states in a wildlife compact agreement; so Phelps could also lose his hunting and fishing privileges in 24 other states. Texas does not participate in the compact agreement.

The length of his suspension will be determined at a hearing with the DOW this winter.



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