Hearing delayed in illegal fur trade

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

The sentencing hearing for U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Thad Bingham has been postponed for at least two months.

Bingham, who works at the service's Horsethief Canyon Native Fish Facility Ponds near Fruita, pleaded guilty in May to a single felony count of transporting and selling dozens of bobcat pelts with at least five co-conspirators to international fur traders. 

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

That law also tracks legal kills during bobcat hunting season, information the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division uses to determine hunting licenses that can be issued. 

While the maximum penalty could be up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the minimum sentence could be as little as 6 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 from any jail time.

For now, his new sentencing hearing is to be held in federal court in Grand Junction on Sept. 30, but that could be delayed even longer, into October. His sentencing hearing was delayed because of issues getting a visiting federal judge to Grand Junction.

Meanwhile, Bingham continues to be employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and his employment status likely won't be addressed until after sentencing, a spokesman said in an email.

"The service takes any allegations regarding misconduct or violations of law, especially wildlife protection laws, very seriously," FWS spokesman Michael D'Agostino, wrote. "We remain aware of the charges against Mr. Bingham and are awaiting the outcome of the criminal proceeding before taking any administrative action."

The agency took no action against Bingham in 2016 when he and three others faced charges of illegally poaching an elk on private land near Rifle. A plea agreement narrowed that charge to a misdemeanor conviction for trespassing.

In that case, Bingham, 46, was caught after he posted a picture of himself with the dead elk on social media, which allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials to locate where the illegal hunt occurred.

As part of a plea deal in state court, 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.

In the bobcat case, Bingham was called the ringleader in an illegal scheme that involved him and others selling 51 pelts between 2012 to 2016 mostly to Greek buyers, making about $25,600, according to the indictment against him.

Bingham said he did not personally kill and skin all 51 bobcats.

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