Fish and Wildlife biologist gets probation, fine in pelt-sale scheme

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

Thad Bingham, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist who pleaded guilty in May to one felony count of violating federal law in transporting and selling 51 bobcat pelts, with at least five co-conspirators, to international fur traders, was sentenced Tuesday to three years probation and $55,100 in restitution and fines.

Bingham, who has since lost his job at the service's Horsethief Canyon Native Fish Facility Ponds near Fruita, faced as much as 18 months in prison.

During sentencing before U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger in a Grand Junction federal courtroom, Bingham and his attorney, Ashley Petrey, asked for leniency in the case, saying "he's paid the ultimate price" when he lost his job, likely won't ever be able to work in his chosen field again, lost his ability to hunt and his right to own firearms.

"Incarceration here is not the appropriate remedy," Petrey told Krieger. "Mr. Bingham has learned his lesson, and he sits before you full of remorse. He sits before you a broken man."

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Evans, however, said there's no evidence of that given his "substantial criminal history" of poaching and violating hunting laws.

"Especially relevant here is the defendant's two prior convictions for poaching, which is exactly the reason he is here today," Evans said. "The defendant has clearly not learned from his prior poaching. Mr. Bingham argues that he is an ethical and moral hunter. That is false. The falsity is demonstrated not only by his conduct in this iteration of poaching, but also by the fact that it is now his third conviction for poaching."

Evans also said that Bingham is financially able to pay a high fine and restitution for his crime, saying he has more than $1 million in assets, owning two homes, eight vehicles and 20 firearms, weapons he was supposed to have divested himself of before now.

Instead of outright getting rid of them, which he was expected to, Bingham transferred them to his wife, Barbara, and is storing them in the home of a friend, his attorney said.

Krieger said that's not even close to being adequate.

Petrey said Barbara Bingham isn't a hunter and has no real use for the firearms.

In addition to his sentence, Krieger ordered Bingham to have no access to his weapons, even to look at them, saying he also isn't allowed to profit from selling them.

"The fact that they have been physically given to a friend without any instructions to sell concerns me because it suggests a possibility that Mr. Bingham thinks that he can have access to these firearms at some future point in time," Krieger said. "Mr. Bingham, the days of hunting with a firearm are over for you. You may never use, possess or own a firearm again, not directly and not through your wife and not anyone else."

In 2016, Bingham was convicted of possessing an illegally killed elk and trespassing on private land. In investigating that incident, law enforcement discovered text messages on his cell phone about the bobcat hunting and pelt selling scheme he was involved in with at least five others. No other charges were filed in relation to the case.

Those messages led federal prosecutors to charge Bingham, which ended in a plea agreement for a single felony count of violating the federal Lacey Act, which governs illegal selling of animals.

Prosecutors said Bingham and his co-conspirators knowingly mislabled when and where the bobcats were killed, in violation of state and federal law. He earned about $25,600 from selling pelts to Greek fur traders between 2012 and 2016.

The money from his fine and restitution are to go to Colorado Operation Game Thief and the Lacey Act Reward Fund, both of which pay rewards to whistleblowers who report poaching and other wildlife crimes.

In asking for leniency, his attorney said prosecutors were making more of the case than necessary, saying Bingham has also faced humiliation in the press and on social media.

Krieger said there's a good reason for that.

"Probably part of the reason there has been so much attention to this case is it's particularly offensive to the public when someone works for the government and is charged with enforcing federal law, and he himself doesn't comply with the law," Krieger said. "That creates an impression that he's above the law, that he only has to follow the law when it is convenient. In our country, no one is above the law."