Biologist guilty in bobcat pelt sales

Thad Bingham pleaded guilty to felony count of transporting and selling pelts.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to a single felony count of transporting and selling dozens of bobcat pelts with at least five co-conspirators to international fur traders. 

Fruita resident Thad Bingham and the others sold 51 pelts between 2012 to 2016 mostly to Greek buyers, making about $25,600, according to the indictment against him. As part of a plea agreement, Bingham admitted to the charge before U.S. Magistrate Gordon Gallagher in federal court in Grand Junction. 

In the indictment against Bingham, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Evans said Bingham conspired with at least five others over several years to hunt, skin and sell bobcat pelts to out-of-state buyers, and falsifying required reports to state game officials as is required by law. 

"Only the person who took the bobcat can provide the information," Evans told the court. "The person providing the information must certify in writing and signing the report that the bobcat was killed in Colorado, and that all the information provided is true. The defendant knew of these requirements." That law is used to track legal kills during bobcat hunting season, information the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division uses to determine the overall health of the bobcat population in the state. 

Coincidentally, the Colorado Wildlife Commission determined during a meeting in Grand Junction just last week not to end bobcat hunting, as some animal rights groups were asking. Those activists said a ban was needed to protect the species because many were being killed for the purpose of being sold on foreign markets.

Evans said the other conspirators have not yet been charged, and declined to say when, or if, that would happen, or to identify them. He did say that Bingham was identified as the leader of the group.

The plea agreement calls for Bingham to be sentenced on "the low end" of federal sentencing guidelines for the charge, which officially was violating the false labeling provision of the federal Lacey Act, which governs the illegal trade of animals and plants.

He is to be sentenced in early August. While the maximum penalty could be up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the minimum sentence could be as little as six months in prison, an order to pay $5,100 in restitution ($100 for each falsely labeled bobcat), an undetermined fine and up to three years on probation after his release.

He also would be barred from owning firearms, and appealing his conviction or sentence.

Bingham, 46, answered a series of yes-or-no questions from Gallagher, mostly concerning his admission of guilt, and made no statement other than to say that he did not personally kill and skin all 51 bobcats.

This isn't the first time Bingham has faced a hunting-related crime.

In 2016, Bingham and three others — including a fellow Fish and Wildlife biologist — faced charges of illegally poaching an elk on private land near Rifle. A plea agreement narrowed that charge down to a misdemeanor conviction for trespassing, 

In that case, Bingham was caught after he posted a picture of himself with the dead elk, allowing then CPW Grand Junction area wildlife manager JT Romatzke to locate where the illegal hunt occurred.

As part of a plea deal with the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office in Glenwood Springs, Bingham pleaded guilty to trespassing and illegal possession of wildlife. He paid more than $200 in court costs and was ordered to donate $5,000 to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Initially, he was facing charges of illegal transportation of wildlife, failing to contact the landowner prior to entering private property, and illegal possession of a trophy-class bull elk with six points on each antler. Those charges carried a fine of up to $12,000.

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