Helicopter Harassed Antelopes in Arizona, Feds Say

UPDATE: Chad Smith and Chris Atkinson signed deferred-prosecution plea deals with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office in December 2015. Here's an excerpt from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release about the court case:

"According to court documents, during the 48-month deferral period Smith and Atkinson must not seek or obtain a hunting permit or engage in any hunting activity in Arizona or elsewhere; and not operate a helicopter in Arizona.

"Chad Logan Smith also must forfeit his hunting guide license to the Arizona Game and Fish Department and divest himself of ownership or financial interest in Vaquero Outfitters or any other commercial hunting interest.
"If the defendants abide by these terms, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will dismiss this case on or before December 13, 2019, with no further proceedings. Failure to abide by any of these release conditions, could lead to a new hearing and proceed to sentencing."

Original article follows:

Three men are accused of harassing and herding antelopes with a helicopter near Prescott last August, possibly to help a guided hunting outfit.

A group of hunters in the area reported seeing a black-and-red helicopter buzz herds and solitary antelopes repeatedly on August 22 and 23, according to a federal complaint filed this week. The animals were "freaked out" by the chopper's aggressive maneuvers, which in part seemed designed to drive the antelopes toward a ranch, witnesses said.

Named in the complaint are Chris Atkinson, owner of Sendero Helicopters in Texas, and his firm; Chad Smith, a manager at O RO Ranch and the owner of Vaquero Outfitters; and another man allegedly in the chopper at the time, Andrew King. Atkinson's firm is also a named defendant.

See also: -An Eccentric Ad Man Loses His Helicopter to the Feds

Each defendant is being charged with two counts of using aircraft to harass animals, a violation of the 1971 Airborne Hunting Act.

Pronghorn antelopes once numbered in the millions in the United States, but excessive hunting reduced the Arizona population to an estimated 1,000 by the late 1800s, the Arizona Game and Fish website states. Regulated hunting of antelopes became standard after their population bounced back, and Arizona now allows about 500 too 700 antelopes to be hunted each year by those who can obtain a permit.

The 36-page complaint, penned by Agent Preston Fant of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes how a group of hunters in a rural area west of Prescott — the state's "Game Management Unit 18B," to be precise — saw the chopper buzz antelopes on the morning of August 22.

After buzzing one antelope being stalked by the hunters, the chopper "kicked up" three herds of 4-5 antelopes each and started "pushing" them toward O RO Ranch, hunter Austin Roark told Fant.

The next day, the hunters observed the chopper flying low for "hours" as antelope ran from it. One man in the aircraft wore a "cowboy/safari type hat," the report says.

After one of the hunters complained to the authorities, state Game and Fish Officer Scott Poppenberger and a pilot flew over O RO Ranch at "high altitude" and spotted a helicopter on the ground matching the description given by the hunters. The next day, Fant and Poppenberger served a state warrant on the helicopter at the ranch, and interviewed several people. They met Chad Smith in the garage of his home in the ranch's headquarters. Smith told Fant he may have flown those two days with Chris Atkinson and Andrew King, but that all of their flying was "absolutely, strictly cattle." They never flew over the ranch borders and never chased or herded antelope, Smith maintained.

Smith was allegedly cagey and spoke with excessive "vagueness" during the interview. He said he'd never guided Atkinson on a hunt, for instance — but suddenly remembered after being shown a picture from his website of Atkinson holding a "large trophy mule deer buck." Smith was "very reluctant to commit to names, dates, activities or any other specifics," the report says.

Atkinson, when interviewed, admitted he'd flown on the O RO Ranch border on August 22 and 23 to help herd cattle. He'd seen a lot of antelope that weekend, he said — but both he and King denied chasing or herding them.

A client of Smith's had a state permit to hunt antelope that month and that pictures of the client with three different buck antelopes were posted on the Vaquero website, Fant noted in the complaint. The dates of the client's hunt fall within the alleged illegal helicopter activity; Fant implies the two facts are related, but doesn't state that theory explicitly.

In conclusion, Fant wrote, the evidence indicates the three men and the helicopter company committed the criminal violations.

New Times left messages for Smith and Atkinson on Thursday but haven't yet heard back.

The case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark E Aspey, but no hearing dates have yet been set.

UPDATE: The Daily Courier of Prescott published an article on March 9 about the case, adding info about Smith previously being punished by the state for a hunting violation, and about the interesting history of the O RO Ranch.

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