Plea deal reveals details of illegal Denali hunt

Casey Grove
Anne Raup

One of four men charged with killing moose inside Denali National Park and Preserve has signed a plea agreement that reveals more details of the illegal hunt.

The court papers say the men shot two moose, both of them with antler spreads of more than 60 inches, on park property in September 2012 when they were supposed to be hunting on private land in the park's Kantishna region. A National Park Service ranger busted them when she discovered their story did not line up with evidence at the kill sites, a prosecutor said.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors charged Homer resident Michael Barth, 29, Wasilla resident James Riggs, 58, and Anchorage residents Charlie Hart, 55, and Deric Hart, 33, with one misdemeanor count each of hunting wildlife in a national park, possessing the illegally taken animal, and violating the Lacey Act by allegedly transporting it. Charlie Hart is Deric Hart's father and Barth's father-in-law, and Riggs is a family friend, prosecutors said.

Barth entered into the plea agreement Friday, admitting to violating the Lacey Act, and prosecutors dropped the other charges against him. Barth's lawyer, Kevin Fitzgerald, said he and Barth had no comment on the plea.

While the cases against the other three remained unresolved Monday, this is what happened, according to the plea agreement:

Sometime before September 2012, Charlie Hart asked the owner of a private piece of land inside Denali National Park if he could hunt on the land. The property's owner is referred to only as "Landowner A" in the court papers.

The landowner gave permission for Hart and his group to hunt there, but they were only supposed to take one moose and had to hunt on the property. So the Harts, Riggs and Barth got permits to drive the roughly 90 miles to Kantishna and started hunting Sept. 3.

Along with a fifth person -- not named in the plea agreement and called simply "Individual A" -- the hunters went looking for bull moose using electronic cow moose calls "well outside the boundary of the in-holding." (Electronic moose calls are illegal in Alaska under state law).

Barth was with Deric Hart and Individual A when they saw a bull moose with a rack that measured about 64 inches. It was just outside the property line and adjacent to the park's boundary line. Deric Hart shot the bull, the hunters dragged it onto the private property with an ATV, and then field-dressed it.

On Sept. 5, Riggs shot another bull moose on park land that Barth had been stalking, and Barth later filled out a tag indicating he had shot it. They were about a half-mile from Landowner A's property inside the park and again dragged the moose back with an ATV, this time driving in an area where vehicular travel is banned. The moose's antlers measured about 65 inches.

"On the way out of Denali National Park, the party was stopped by the National Park Service and questioned," the court documents say. "During the questioning, the hunting party lied to a National Park Ranger about the location of the kills, the rifles used to kill the moose and that Michael Barth killed one of the moose when in fact the second moose was killed by James C. Riggs."

The case hinged on a tip from road workers and investigative work by the Denali ranger who stopped the men as they were leaving the park, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki.

"What happened is, on the way out of the park on the park road, the moose antlers were lashed to the top of their ATV trailers," Skrocki said. "They went by a road crew doing work who thought they might have been speeding."

A worker called the Park Service, and a ranger stopped and interviewed the hunters, Skrocki said.

"The ranger got some conflicting and strange information about the circumstances of the hunt, went further down the road afterwards to the Kantishna area and realized right away that what she observed and what stories she was told did not line up," Skrocki said.

Prosecutors had been working for months with the four men leading up to the charges filed Thursday and Barth's plea agreement Friday.

Barth agreed to surrender the antlers and meat from the moose he claimed to have killed. Prosecutors are recommending he get a sentence of two years' probation, a restriction of no hunting for one year and a $2,500 fine. The agreement also says the four men owe Denali National Park and Preserve $15,000 for the two bull moose.

Skrocki said neither Landowner A or Individual A were confidential sources or informants in the case, merely people involved who had not committed crimes.

"It was a family-friend hunt that went from bad to worse," Skrocki said. "Mr. Barth is doing the right thing taking responsibility for this offense."

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