In an honest case of mistaken identity paired with some rare circumstances, a Montana hunter has pleaded guilty to illegally killing two bighorn sheep in late October.

After tracking a group of bighorn sheep in the Knowles Creek region of Montana, Jeff Fleming, along with his hunting partner Brad Borden, settled in to place a shot on a trophy ram.  Unbeknownst to the hunter, the first shot killed the animal he had sighted in.

“I took a shot at my ram, but as soon as I shot that ram, I didn’t know it at the time, it fell into a depression where I couldn’t see it,” Fleming told Daily Inter Lake.

A case of mistaken identity, however, prompted the Montana man to take a second shot at what he thought was the same ram.

“I’m sure he’s wounded, so I shot him again. When I walked up the hill, I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see three bighorn sheep lying there.”

As unimaginable feelings of guilt passed over the hunter, there he stood over two rams along with a ewe that had been struck in the neck by the same bullet that killed the second ram.  In a moment of ethical distress, Borden immediately notified game wardens, self-reporting the incident.

Arriving on the scene, the game warden corroborated the two men’s story with evidence from the area.  While allowing Fleming to retain the meat from the first ram, the warden had no choice but to lay charges for the second dead animal, after helping the men pack out the meat.

“He told me, ‘I gotta charge you for taking a ram, but I can’t charge you for taking an ewe’”, Fleming recalled. “I just thought I was going to pay a fine. I never thought I’d lose my license.”

Fleming eventually was convicted by Thompson Falls Justice of the Peace Donald M. Strine of illegally killing the two bighorn sheep, a conviction that came with heavy consequences.  After pleading guilty, Fleming was ordered to pay $30,000 for the second ram and $2,000 for the ewe as restitution to the state of Montana.  Additionally, the Montana man was handed a $735 fine for hunting over the limit and had his hunting, trapping and fishing privileges revoked for a period of 30 months.

While Fleming believes there should be incentive for every hunter to do the right thing and report incidents such as this one, he feels as though the state was harsh in their penalization.

“As a hunter, there should be an incentive for every hunter to do the right thing and the honest thing, which is to report yourself,” he said. “They shouldn’t throw the book at an honest hunter. I’ve never had a hunting violation in my life and I’ve never had a criminal history.”

Despite being unintentional, the fact that an additional ram was killed remains.  While Fleming did indeed do the right thing, the same can be said about the state.

Unfortunately the laws were not created with predisposed gray areas for unique instances such as this one.  While Fleming was unmistakably ethical in the reporting of the additional sheep, there is also a certain level of ethical onus every time each and every one of us pulls the trigger.  As Thompson Falls Justice of the Peace Donald M. Strine put it:

“If you’re gonna go out in the woods with a rifle, you better know the law and what you’re going to shoot at, and what you’re not going to shoot at.”


H/T: Daily Inter Lake