Brian Solan hopes the Deer Lodge man who poached a bighorn ram last month in the Highland Mountains will join ongoing efforts to sustain the Highlands' toehold herd of wild sheep.
Solan, executive director of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, said Thursday that he believes poacher Harold Horine, 45, got off easy when he was penalized for offenses that included hunting without a valid license, unlawful possession of a game animal, failure to obtain landowner permission when hunting and waste of a game animal.
Horine pleaded guilty to the charges in Madison County Justice Court on Dec. 7. He was ordered to pay $5,245 in fines and restitution. His hunting, fishing and trapping privileges were suspended for two years and his ability to apply for special permits was suspended for 12 years.
The offenses galled sportsmen like Solan, Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsman’s Club and Justin Mandic, president of the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association. They were especially troubled by Horine’s abandonment of the bighorn ram’s carcass.
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Horine reportedly told game wardens that he mistook the bighorn sheep for an elk.
“Accidents and mistakes happen in the field,” Solan said. “It was more concerning to leave the sheep to waste.”
Marchion was skeptical of Horine’s story about mistaking the two animals.
“They’re not similar at all,” he said.
The Facebook page for the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation noted Wednesday that illegally killing a trophy bighorn ram could require restitution of up to $30,000. State law requires the court to determine that the killing of a trophy animal was committed knowingly or purposely before imposing such restitution.
Both Marchion and the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association felt the two-year suspension of Horine’s hunting, fishing and trapping privileges wasn’t sufficient punishment.
A case in 2020 involving a 27-year-old Belgrade man who poached a bighorn in the Missouri River Breaks resulted in the suspension of his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for 10 years. He was fined $4,000.
Dave Loewen, chief of law enforcement for FWP, said game wardens occasionally make recommendations to judges about sentencing. That typically happens when circumstances might mitigate imposition of a larger fine, such as an offender turning themselves in.
“However, the tendency is to allow the judicial system to function independently,” Loewen said.
He said it is also challenging to compare penalties for similar cases when there are so many judges and courts across the state and often mitigating circumstances involved.
Mandic, Solan and Marchion observed that Montana hunters seeking a permit to hunt a bighorn sheep can wait years and years without success.
Solan said the campaign to sustain the bighorn sheep herd in the Highlands has been expensive, with helicopter transport costs, radio collaring costs, personnel expenses and more. The fines for Horine should have reflected those costs, he said.
Mandic, speaking for himself and not the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association, said Horine’s decision to leave the carcass to rot should have been enough to merit a stiffer fine.
Earlier this month, volunteers helped FWP conduct a count of bighorns in the Highlands. The official tally wasn’t available Thursday and FWP wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori was out of the office for the holidays.
Solan suggested Horine could atone for his offenses.
“We’d encourage him to get involved in the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. We’d be happy to have his help.”