Sheep hunters acquitted

Two former police officers have been acquitted of illegally using ATVs to hunt sheep in the Ruby Range. They have also been acquitted of reporting false or misleading information to officials. Greg McHale and Ryan Leef once

Two former police officers have been acquitted of illegally using ATVs to hunt sheep in the Ruby Range.

They have also been acquitted of reporting false or misleading information to officials.

Greg McHale and Ryan Leef once upheld the law, but found themselves under investigation for breaking it after a complaint from area hunters was made to Haines Junction conservation officers.

Leef, who was also once a conservation officer, is a director of Ruby Range Outfitters. McHale, a former park officer, was guiding for the outfit.

At the end of October, while guiding a film crew and an Ontario hunter, two sheep were harvested from around Kluane Lake.

McHale and Leef had two ATVs at their Kluane Lake hunting camp.

One sheep was killed roughly 20 kilometres from the camp – in an area where it is illegal to drive ATVs.

The sheep was then transported back to the camp – not by boat, since the kill zone is not close to any bodies of water.

After an investigation, conservation officers charged the pair with using a motorized vehicle in a protected area, an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and/or 12 months in jail.

“Clearly they didn’t hike that distance,” said Crown prosecutor Zeb Brown in court proceedings on Thursday.

And, in court, McHale said they used “wheeled vehicles” to hunt the sheep.

But he made the remark after Judge Cunliffe Barnett had already dismissed the charge on the grounds that it was impossible to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” the pair had actually ridden ATVs.

Leef was also charged with providing “false or misleading information” on an obligatory outfitter report. A sheep had been killed in concession 12 subzone 531 of the Kluane Lake area, but Leef reported that the sheep had been killed in subzone 536.

“I’m not a judge from the big city who doesn’t know the difference between a deer and a caribou É and who doesn’t think it’s a big deal that you say you hunted in one location, but you really hunted in a place hundreds of kilometres away,” said Barnett.

The mislabeling was “a careless mistake,” testified Leef.

“We all make mistakes,” said Barnett.

“We got rid of the last person whose sum thought was perfect about 2,000 years ago,” he said.

The “false or misleading information” charges were also thrown out.

The idea for the hunting trip started at a convention in Reno. That’s when Leef offered a complimentary trip to Phil Phillips, a Colorado TV host for the Outdoor Network, and Phillip’s cameraman on the understanding that Ruby Range Outfitters would be featured on Phillips’ program.

Ontarian Dwight James accompanied the group.

Phillips successfully shot a sheep on October 28, an event later viewed by thousands on the Outdoor Network.

“Which Your Honour possibly knows, is quite a popular channel,” said defence counsel Nicholas Weigelt in his closing statements.

James bagged his sheep on October 31, only hours before the close of the hunting season.

The party used “wheeled vehicles,” McHale told the court on Thursday, hours after the charge was dismissed.

The group arrived back in Whitehorse on November 2, after poor weather confined them to camp for two days.

The delay messed up the visitors’ flight plans. Amid the “chaos” at the Environment office, and while the hunters scrambled to make alternative flight arrangements, Leef filled out the form incorrectly. McHale signed it.

“It’s quite a simple form,” said Brown in his closing statements.

In exchange for holding a monopoly on outfitting rights in the Ruby Range area, Leef’s only obligation to the government was to submit the form, said Brown.

“It shouldn’t be something that’s just dashed off,” he said.

“I don’t think you can get around the fact that when he filled in the form, a map was sitting right in front of

him,” said Brown.

The investigation began after Haines Junction conservation officer Russell Oborne got a complaint from local hunters about McHale and Leef possibly misusing ATVs.

Sheep kills have increased significantly in the Ruby Range area since Ruby Range Outfitters obtained exclusive outfitting rights in 2004.

Before the Phillips and James hunt, conservation officer Dan Drummond had met with Leef to discuss “concerns” about the number of kills, even going so far as to suggest the idea of sheep harvesting quotas.

“Perhaps that complaint was made because some people thought that too many sheep were being harvested in the Ruby Range area,” said Barnett.

The error on the reporting form was discovered by Oborne when he confronted Leef, a former coworker, at the Environment office two weeks after the hunting trip ended.

Oborne presented Leef with a map and asked him to point to where the James sheep had been shot. Leef pointed to the correct location, contradicting his report and prompting the charge.

The next day, on November 16, with an investigation against him already underway, Leef met with John Russell, director of conservation officer services, to discuss concerns the investigation was not proceeding “professionally.”

“(Leef) didn’t have faith in Oborne’s professional capabilities,” testified Russell.

He also felt that the charge might have been motivated because of a “personal issue,” he said.

“I didn’t expect (Russell’s) intervention in the file,” testified Leef.

Leef also voiced the opinion that hunters should be allowed to travel through protected areas on ATVs, provided they don’t use the ATVs to hunt while in the protected area.

“He felt that the way the department was interpreting the legislation was incorrect and that it should be challenged,” said Russell.

“I don’t think he was admitting that he’s used an ATV,” he said.

“I just felt that there were some serious issues that were going on,” testified Leef.

Leef offered to give an official statement for the investigation – provided it was taken by a conservation officer other than Oborne, said Russell.

However, when contacted by conservation officer Kirby Meister, Leef declined to comment.

Ultimately, an incorrect form failed to meet the judge’s definition of a false form. Especially since the hunt in question was broadcast to thousands, Barnett maintained that it was obvious Leef wasn’t trying to fool anyone.

Barnett called on outfitters to maintain vigilance to prevent similar “regrettable mistakes.”

“I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I think that (form) changes such as this should be trivialized,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tirstinh@yukon-news.com

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