SI Vault
Ed Zern
June 28, 1971
When word got around that hunters were shooting the rare sheep—at up to $3,000 a head—a secret agent started a hunt of his own
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June 28, 1971

Good Guys, Bad Guys And The Bighorn

When word got around that hunters were shooting the rare sheep—at up to $3,000 a head—a secret agent started a hunt of his own

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The climax of the case was routine enough, as court cases go: Gary Swanson of Yucaipa, Calif., a handsome, 6'4" 220-pounder, pleaded guilty to violating Section 182 of the California Penal Code. That section encompasses a wide arc of legal sins—specifically, the conspiracy to commit a crime. "Yes, I did," Swanson said in San Bernardino Superior Court. And Judge J. Steve Williams also acted routinely: he set sentencing for Aug. 5. Those were the legally dispassionate parts. But behind the courtroom procedures lay a full-blown adventure story. Complete with touches of cloak and dagger, it was one of the more bizarre chapters in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The story of Gary Swanson features, in sequence, the rare and elusive desert bighorn sheep, one of America's dwindling species; a group of wealthy, greedy hunters from 12 states and Canada who wanted bighorn heads; an undercover agent with a camera bag full of money and a small transmitting radio and, finally, in True Detective fashion, the hunters hunting the hunters.

Swanson fits the role of a principal: he was a successful taxidermist, was associated with an impressive studio in Oak Glen, Calif., with more than 400 specimens on display, he was a big-game hunter and an avowed conservationist, indeed, a member of the prestigious Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. He was well-off for a youthful small businessman. At 29, he was the owner of a $60,000 home and had been able to take several high-priced safaris to Africa and Russia. He was well known; he spoke before civic and service clubs, and local newspapers carried laudatory stories about him. On May 6, 1970, The Daily Enterprise of Riverside County ran a special feature on Swanson under a three-column headline, TAXIDERMIST HAS STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT HUNTING AND CONSERVATION. In the story, Swanson, described as "a young man on his way up," set forth some strong opinions, among them that the state should "put more restrictions on licensing to get more competent hunters in the field."

An important part of the story concerned the efforts of a band of hunter-conservationists, Swanson included, who were setting up a water hole for bighorn sheep in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where the sheep were said to be nearly extinct. "We think there may be 10 or 12 bighorn left," Swanson said, adding that he was hopeful that the water hole ultimately would support 50 sheep a year. And he went on to suggest a state charge of $1,000 for a permit to take a ram and then only in areas overpopulated with rams.

Thirteen months later Swanson stood accused by the state of conspiring to kill bighorn sheep, as many as 150 of them in the past four years. Further revelations pointed to a widespread plot in which more than 100 hunters, paying stiff fees, were guided into the Anza-Borrego Park and other remote areas of Southern California where they were virtually guaranteed an illegal desert bighorn ram. Moreover, the hunters were guided to those same conservation water holes Swanson helped set up, ones where the sheep tended to congregate and where easy shots were the rule.

The case broke slowly. A month before the 1970 Daily Enterprise encomium, the California state game department had received an unsigned letter accusing "a Redlands taxidermist" of killing illegal desert bighorn (there are not any other kind in California; the sheep has been protected there since 1873. In all of Mexico, where the species is more abundant, fewer than 30 desert sheep permits are issued to hunters annually). The letter contained some additional accusations that stirred official interest, so an outside warden was assigned to check the charges. He reported that Swanson, obviously the letter's target, was highly respected in the community (true) and in local wildlife-conservation circles (true). The writer of the letter was circumstantially identified as a local citizen with a personal grudge against one of Swanson's associates, and the investigation was dropped.

In June, U.S. Game Management Agent Loren K. Parcher, stationed in Pasadena, heard from a fellow agent in a neighboring state that a sportsman in his area had requested that Swanson's sheep activities be investigated, having heard rumors of unlawful hunts. Parcher checked with Inspector Cliff Matthews of the California game department, who told him of the previous note, and the two men agreed that there now was sufficient smoke to suggest the possibility of fire. It was decided that an undercover man should be used, and the stage was carefully set. According to government sources, here is what happened.

On July 14, Swanson got a long-distance phone call from an Eastern construction-company executive. The caller said he had heard from a mutual friend in Seattle that Swanson could arrange for him to kill a desert ram. Swanson hedged—"Wait until I get on a private telephone before we discuss anything pertaining to sheep hunting," he said—but after some careful checking with the reference and with calls back to the construction-company office, Swanson agreed to provide a desert bighorn for a "bargain" fee of $2,500. The construction-company biggie was actually U.S. Game Management Agent Robert O. Halstead, a 23-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Seattle "friend" was an alleged dealer in illegal hides who knew Swanson and who agreed, after some pointed discussion with agents regarding federal penalties for transporting illegally killed game, to provide a reference for Halstead. The construction company was real, complete with a secretary to take the checkup calls Swanson was sure to make. A hunting date was made for Sept. 13, and Swanson specified, as he had with all his other customers, that payment be in small-denomination bills. Swanson said the fee was for five days but the hunt probably would not take more than two, as he had 31 rams spotted, including several exceptional heads. He said he would provide the rifle so that Halstead would not risk arousing suspicion by bringing one along with him.

In late July Halstead telephoned Swanson to confirm the date and his time of arrival, and Swanson sleepily explained he had taken two hunters out the day before and that both had got their rams and were already on their way home after sneaking out of the desert under cover of darkness. On Aug. 13 the two spoke again via the construction-company office number and Swanson said he had spotted "the goddamnedest sheep in the world" and that Halstead would have to come earlier. Besides, he said, Halstead had said he was in good shape, and this sheep was in an area that would require a lot of walking in heat up to 120�. Swanson said he had several poorly conditioned "sportsmen" he would take into easier country on Halstead's reserved date, the 13th, and Halstead agreed to fly out 10 days early.

Late on the night of Sept. 3 Halstead deplaned at the Ontario, Calif. airport and was met by Swanson and one of his guides, Ray Pocta. Swanson apologized and said he had another client, this one from New Jersey, and that Pocta would guide Halstead into an area where there were several exceptional rams, including the "goddamnedest" one. The three men got in a pickup truck with a camper body and drove to Swanson's home in Yucaipa. On the way, Swanson told Halstead that he had a lot of clients in the East, including eight or 10 from Pennsylvania, mostly in the York area, and several in Vermont. One of the Vermonters. he said, had killed a desert bighorn that might even rank in the top 10 in the Boone and Crockett Club big-game records. It had been submitted as having been shot under a Mexican permit.

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