TUCUMCARI – For an Oklahoma lawyer, a plea deal to charges related to his shooting of a cougar that had already been “treed” cost him a lot less than it did to set up the kill on the family ranch of the then-chairman of the New Mexico Game Commission.
Jason Roselius of Oklahoma City pleaded no contest in court Wednesday to unlawful hunting – a charge that carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of $500. He got no jail time and was ordered to pay $73 in court costs and $500 in restitution to the Department of Game and Fish.
Roselius previously had told a Game and Fish law enforcement officer that he paid $9,000 for the cougar hunt, including a $3,500 tip for the guides, according to a case report by the officer.
Charges of unlawful hunting are still pending against former Game Commission Chairman Scott Bidegain and three other men, who all have pleaded not guilty.
Bidegain, an appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez, resigned as commission chairman the weekend before the charges were filed in February. The Governor’s Office has said it asked Bidegain to resign after being told by the Game and Fish Department that it had enough evidence to charge him.
At the time of his resignation, Bidegain already was under fire for taking part and winning money in a coyote-killing contest in Nevada. Nine conservation groups had called for Martinez to remove him from the Game Commission.
The charges of unlawful hunting stem from a hunt Feb. 9 on the Bidegain family’s T4 cattle ranch near Tucumcari. It’s one of the state’s largest ranches, with a reported 180,000 deeded acres.
According to Game and Fish officer case reports, Bidegain met Roselius in Tucumcari on the day of the hunt. When they arrived at the ranch, hunting dogs already had a male cougar cornered in a cave. Roselius got out of a truck, walked to the cave and killed the cougar with one shot from a .243-caliber rifle.
Roselius, Bidegain and the other men allegedly involved in the kill were charged with unlawful hunting because Game and Fish regulations say a hunter who kills a cougar must be present continuously once any dog is released.
Roselius also was charged with hunting without a license. While he had purchased a cougar license in New Mexico, he had failed to buy a required general game-hunting license and habitat management access validation stamp, according to Game and Fish.
Roselius entered his no contest plea in state Magistrate Court in Tucumcari as part of an agreement with the office of state District Attorney Timothy Rose.
In exchange for Roselius’ plea to unlawful hunting and his agreement to pay restitution and court costs, the DA’s Office dismissed the charge of hunting without a license.
The sentencing was deferred, meaning the charge of unlawful hunting also will be dismissed if Roselius successfully completes 90 days of unsupervised probation. The record of the charge will still exist.
Roselius didn’t appear in person for the plea hearing before Judge Buddy J. Hall, instead taking part by telephone. He wasn’t asked to comment on the substance of the charges and didn’t do so. He responded “yes” to Hall when asked whether he understood his legal rights and the plea agreement.
Rose told the judge that Roselius didn’t knowingly fail to purchase a general game-hunting license, believing that the cougar license he had purchased was all that was required.
“We believe that it was a crime of negligence,” Rose said.
The DA said after the hearing that there also was no evidence that Roselius knew about the regulation requiring a hunter who kills a cougar to be present continuously once any dog is released.
“The people that should have known and did know were the people hunting cougars in New Mexico for many years,” Rose said in a reference to Bidegain and the other three men charged in the case.
In accepting the plea agreement, Hall said it sounded appropriate. “Thank you, your honor,” Roselius responded.
Roselius, who is in his mid-40s, is a law graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He also has a home near Angel Fire and is a gun collector. In 2010, he paid nearly $900,000 at auction for a shotgun used on a safari by President Theodore Roosevelt, according to published reports.
Rose said plea negotiations have been held with Bidegain and the other defendants in the case. No trial date has been set.
The DA said a legal question has arisen over whether the Game and Fish Department has the legal authority to bring criminal charges against the men as accessories to unlawful hunting. Rose said he believes the department does have that authority but that defense attorneys may move to dismiss the charges.
In addition to Roselius and Bidegain, those charged in the case are Larry Webb of Newkirk in eastern New Mexico, Billy Ivy of Canyon, Texas, and Chad Hassell of Childress, Texas.
The Game and Fish Department investigation of the cougar hunt began after Roselius, Bidegain, Ivy and Hassell met with a department officer to have the cougar “pelt-tagged” by the officer, as required by hunting regulations. The officer then discovered that Roselius wasn’t properly licensed, and Roselius later told the officer that dogs already had the cougar cornered in the cave when he arrived for the hunt.
Game and Fish recovered the cougar’s pelt and skull from a taxidermist in Amarillo.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.