Originally Published: March 9, 2015 6:02 a.m.
PRESCOTT - Three men are being charged with using a helicopter to harass pronghorn antelope north of Prescott, including a local hunting guide.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service complaint filed in federal court last week offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of Arizona trophy hunting, with hunters and guides competing for a trophy buck.
Chad Smith, owner of Vaquero Outfitters based in Prescott and manager of the huge ORO Ranch about 45 miles north of Prescott, is among those charged with two counts of knowingly using an aircraft to harass the antelope in August 2014.
"Every antelope in sight freaked out and started running," one young hunter told investigators, according to the 36-page complaint written by Fish and Wildlife investigator Preston Fant.
"We could see (the helicopter) pushing the antelope towards the ORO Ranch and flying very slowly as to stay right behind them," hunter Austin Roark wrote in his statement to investigators. He estimated the copter rounded up about a dozen pronghorn.
The others charged with harassing the antelope from the sky are helicopter pilot Christopher Atkinson, owner of Sendero Helicopters based out of Bandera, Texas; and his spotter Andrew King.
The Sendero Helicopters website says Atkinson is a certified wildlife biologist whose team "captures 100+ thousand exotic and wildlife game on an annual basis."
An online Lone Star Outdoor News story discussed a Texas ranch roundup of 50 white-tailed deer in which Atkinson's company netted the deer from a helicopter and moved them to another ranch. Photos show college students hog-tying the deer before loading them into a trailer.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website indicates that people can get a "Trap, Transport and Transplant" permit to move overpopulated white-tailed deer from one place to another as long as it complies with the ranch management plans created with the agency's help. Agency inspections are not required to obtain the TTT permits.
It's illegal in Arizona for people outside state or federal agencies to capture wildlife, said Arizona Game and Fish Wildlife Manager Scott Poppenberger, who helped investigate the ORO Ranch incident.
"Wildlife is managed a lot differently in Texas," he said.
The penalty for each count of harassing wildlife with an aircraft is up to $100,000 and a year in jail for Smith and King, and up to $200,000 and a year in jail for Atkinson, Poppenberger said. They also could lose hunting and guiding privileges.
All three defendants denied chasing or herding antelope in northern Yavapai County. Smith told investigators they were herding only cattle.
Smith denied having any hunting clients on the property, and said he never guided Atkinson until Wildlife Officer Darren Tucker showed him a photo of Atkinson with a trophy mule deer buck on Smith's Facebook page.
Atkinson said he hunted on the ORO in 2012 and 2013, he had a mule deer tag for 2014, and he paid Smith $12,500 to hunt the ORO in 2014.
Smith lost license before
It's not the first time Smith has been charged with a hunting violation.
In 2003, Smith lost his guide license and hunting privileges for five years and was fined $2,450 by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission for using a vehicle for his client to prevent a trophy buck antelope from running onto a neighboring ranch, according to online commission minutes. His client Jack Tremain was an assistant police chief for Harrison, Ohio, at the time.
Smith and Tremain were convicted in Prescott Justice Court of taking wildlife from a vehicle and possessing unlawfully taken wildlife, according to the commission minutes. Tremain also was found guilty of shooting from a roadway.
Both men denied the charges before the Game and Fish Commission, but Poppenberger said he actually witnessed the crimes.
Several witnesses to incident
Responding to an Operation Game Thief report on Aug. 22, 2014, Poppenberger interviewed six men who said they were hunting on the Fort Rock Ranch next to the ORO Ranch in August 2014 when they saw the helicopter chasing antelope in an aggressive manner with the nose down.
"The helicopter was undoubtedly pushing the antelope southwest into the ORO," hunter Shelton Boggess said in a written statement.
Boggess said he had arrowed a trophy buck on the Fort Rock Aug. 22, but didn't kill it. On Aug. 23 he and his father, brother and friends were trying to finish the kill.
Boggess said as he was stalking the injured buck, a black helicopter flew in from the ORO into the Fort Rock and hovered over the wounded buck. The buck stood up but didn't want to run. The helicopter then forced the buck to run for nearly a mile.
Others in the party said the copter scared the buck into running twice, and it herded three other groups of antelope together and pushed them toward the ORO, flying as low as 50 to 100 feet off the ground at treetop level.
Poppenberger saw the buck after the hunters finished it off on state trust land within Fort Rock. It had a yellow tag in its ear from being captured, tagged and collared for a Game and Fish research project, but the collar already had fallen off.
Special hunt tags aren't cheap
The ORO has a storied history, originally formed in 1856 from a 100,000-acre Spanish land grant called the Luis Maria Baca Grant Float #5. It was combined with the neighboring Mahan Ranch in 1936 to create the 257,000-acre ORO Ranch, according to a Sharlot Hall Museum "Days Past" article. That number includes about 50,000 acres of state trust land within the ranch boundaries.
The ORO owner is the JJJ Corporation, according to county property records. The Droppa family that owns the 43-year-old corporation lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, according to Arizona Corporation Commission records. Larry and Jane Droppa own a multi-million-dollar company called The ATI Group (Audio Toys) in the Baltimore area that creates massive audio sound boards used by major rock stars from the Stones to Tom Petty, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
The ranch has been in Jane Droppa's family for at least three generations. Her grandfather John Irwin was the son of IBM founder Thomas Watson. The Land Report Magazine lists the Irwin heirs as the 57th largest property owners in the country.
Both the Fort Rock and ORO contain some state trust lands but the owners have closed them to the general public for hunting, Poppenberger said. He estimated the Fort Rock covers about 200,000 acres, and it's owned by Rex Maughn.
The Vaquero Outfitters website states that "We control over 600,000 acres of private land, giving our hunters the advantage of a lifetime when drawn for that premium tag."
Game and Fish issues only a few special big game auction tags each year to auctions to raise money for habitat improvement, Poppenberger said. They are good for the entire year in the entire state. They can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Other alleged incident
Former ORO wagon boss Brad Mead told Poppenberger that Smith had hired three helicopter pilots to help manage ORO cattle since Smith became the ORO manager in 2013. One of them was Danny MacKenzie, director of Prescott operations for Universal Helicopters and a flight instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. MacKenzie flew to the ORO on training flights with students, Poppenberger said.
Mead said he was in the copter with MacKenzie and Smith one time when Smith asked MacKenzie and a student pilot to herd a group of elk about a half-mile deeper into the ORO, and MacKenzie complied. MacKenzie denied doing that, telling Poppenberger he knows it's illegal. MacKenzie later called back and said his student pilot remembered "that they had seen a group of elk on the flight and had circled or 'orbited' them with the helicopter," the complaint stated.
On another occasion, Mead said Smith shot and killed six maverick bull cattle on the ORO from a helicopter piloted by Atkinson, which is not illegal but is unusual.
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