A middle-aged Pierce County, Wash., man has an arraignment hearing in an Okanogan County court later this month on nearly 40 counts of illegally baiting in and killing multiple black bears in the upper Methow Valley over the past two years.
In either a testament of James Erickson’s innocence or a show of his attitudes towards game laws, photos of a very large bruin that game wardens allege he poached over food scraps still remained prominently and publicly posted on his Facebook page as of this morning.
“Killed over bait minutes before that shot,” says Sgt. James Brown of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. “The bait is about 30 yards to the right of the picture from the meat pole.”
He claims that Erickson would haul in a mix of restaurant scraps, day-old food and salmon to attract bears to his property backed up against the Okanogan National Forest in the Rendezvous area.
“It looked like he might have contacts in the restaurant industry,” Brown says.
Baiting bears has been illegal in Washington since 1996, when it was outlawed by a statewide initiative.
Erickson’s attorney says the state is making a mountain out of a mole hill and that he will enter a not-guilty plea for his client at the April 30 pro forma hearing in Okanogan.
All totaled, Erickson was charged last week with 34 counts of baiting, four counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree, and one count each of unlawful transport, second degree spotlighting, third-degree possession of stolen property – a trail cam – possession of a body-gripping trap, and possession of a duplicate tag.
Brown says WDFW also seized the large-caliber rifle the defendant allegedly used to kill the Facebook bear late last summer, and his 2007 Chevy Suburban which hauled the carcass to a Westside butcher as well as transported bait.
Erickson did not immediately respond to Northwest Sportsman’s request for a comment, but his attorney downplayed the charges.
“When the case comes to trial, most of the air will come out of the balloon,” says John Brangwin of Woods & Brangwin in Wenatchee. “I think (WDFW) cast too big of a net – there may be some violations, but it’s not the crime of the century.”
He says the case will turn on whether leaving out food which wildlife happens to come upon and feed on is illegal.
“What’s the crime – shooting the animal or putting the material out there?” Brangwin says.
He also suggested that wardens put so much time and money into watching Erickson that they had to justify it somehow, and thus all the charges.
FOR SIX YEARS, goings-on at the defendant’s “hunting” cabin between Little Cub Creek and Cub Creek, about 14 miles up the Chewuch River valley from Winthrop, have been on local game warden Cal Treser’s radar, says Sgt. Brown.
“Citizens had been telling the officer that the camp had a revolving door of participants, all Western Washington residents, who used the camp as a base of operations to commit big game violations, allegedly in and out of season,” he says.
Trying to get to the bottom of secondhand stories of deer poaching, an undercover officer made several contacts with the group over the years and was told about “many supposed violations,” but Brown admits WDFW also unable to see anything first hand.
Over time it also became clear that folks at the cabin were “keenly aware” of uniformed game warden presence in the area and “were taking many steps to avoid detection of their activities,” says Brown.
To break the case Treser needed a little luck.
That came last summer when Brown says Treser learned that a bear bait station on Erickson’s property could be seen from Forest Service land. That site also featured a trail cam, and since the possible violation was in “open view,” Treser was able to get a search warrant to access the camera and its card.
Brown says that that then gave Treser ample opportunity over a period of several months to check on what was happening at the site.
“Many of the pictures showed (Erickson) coming by and dumping baits out,” says Brown.
Photos also showed bears coming in and bears being killed, he alleges.
The images gave WDFW enough evidence to serve search warrants on Erickson’s cabin and his house in eastern Pierce County.
Forensic analysis of computer files, including “hundreds” of photos, eventually led to not only the charges against Erickson, but also three immediate family members.
They were charged with a total of six counts of baiting and four counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Two other individuals, apparent family friends if Facebook photos are any indication, were also charged with a total of three counts of baiting and three counts of unlawful big game hunting in the second degree.
Another two people are mentioned in court papers but were not charged.
Arraignment dates have not been set for the family members or friends, according to information from Okanogan County.
Brown expressed disgust at the suspects’ alleged manner of bear hunting. He says that most of the animals were “shot from the comfort of an Adirondack chair on the porch of the cabin,” and that 20 pages of a 150-page-or-so diary recovered at the building also allegedly indicate that some bruins were killed before the shooters had even put on their shoes.
Under state law, baiting is a gross misdemeanor, subject to fines and hunting license revocation for up to five years.