Last month, Lake County Justice of the Peace Randal Owens threw out a series of outfitter violations leveled by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks against a Swan Lake outfitter and gubernatorial appointee. The order vacated a jury trial set for mid-December and came at the request of Deputy Lake County Attorney Molly Owen, who filed a motion on July 5 to dismiss the charges against Patrick M. Tabor without prejudice citing "an insufficient likelihood of conviction." The investigation had been led by FWP Warden Frank Bowen.
According to court documents provided to the Indy, Bowen issued multiple citations March 1 alleging Tabor had violated his commercial use license and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation regulations several times throughout 2013. The charges against Tabor included failing to "keep true and accurate records" for his operations on the Swan River in 2013 and allowing a subcontracted fishing guide out of Bigfork to utilize state lands "without a commercial use license." The recommended penalty for those violations was $250 with no jail time. Tabor, who is the president-elect of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and was appointed to the Montana Board of Outfitters by Gov. Steve Bullock in March 2014, pleaded not guilty to all five violations.
"The fundamental element of the case was this allegation that business arrangements I made with guides and outfitters to service clients that were referred to us was somehow or another not in compliance with my special recreational use license," Tabor says in response to the case. "That's terribly frustrating because all of our documentation, everything I did, was in compliance with the board of outfitters rules."
Tabor adds that he's spent considerable time, money and effort "trying to clear my good name." Even with the court's dismissal, he still has to go before the Montana Board of Outfitters' screening committee to answer separate complaints filed by Bowen there. He's also fighting to regain a fishing permit revoked by the DNRC over the course of the case, though he says he's already "lost a whole year of revenue off that section of river."
FWP Chief of Enforcement Tom Flowers told the Indy last week he was aware Tabor had been involved with some sort of enforcement action in Region 1 but referred questions to Lee Anderson, the region's warden captain, for any details. Anderson says he can't offer much insight either, adding there is still some "pending stuff" before the Montana Board of Outfitters and the DNRC regarding outfitter violations.
- photo courtesy MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks
- An investigation by FWP Warden Frank Bowen, pictured here, into alleged outfitter violations by Patrick Tabor was dismissed in Lake County last month. Bowen retired Aug. 20.
Asked if Tabor's position as a gubernatorial appointee had any bearing on the investigation, Anderson says the agency took "a true look into these things just as we would anybody else." He's equally succinct when it comes to the judge's dismissal of the case.
"That's not super common," Anderson says, "but it happens."
The proceedings in Bowen's latest investigation come nearly five years after he made headlines for an exhaustive probe into alleged poaching activity by a group of law enforcement officers in Lake County known as the "Coyote Club." Bowen's pursuit of that case prompted death threats and eventually made him a target for former Lake County Attorney Mitch Young. After receiving Bowen's reports in February 2012, Young publicly challenged the warden's credibility and refused to prosecute the poaching cases until Bowen himself had been investigated.
FWP exonerated Bowen, and actually countered with its own allegations against Young. But as the Indy previously reported (see "To serve and deflect," July 25, 2013), agency officials also slapped Bowen with what the warden called a "virtual gag order." In addition, Bowen claimed his investigation of the Coyote Club had been cut short by his superiors due to election-year politics. Bullock was in the midst of a race for the governor's office, and as Bowen later stated in a sworn deposition, his regional supervisor had been concerned about drawing attention to inadequate oversight of Lake County law enforcement during Bullock's time as state attorney general. Bowen was reassigned in summer 2012 to an FWP warden position funded by the DNRC. Anderson confirmed Bowen retired from the position on Aug. 20.
Repeated attempts to contact Bowen for this article were unsuccessful. Bullock's office did not return messages seeking comment on the Tabor case by press time.
Kathryn QannaYahu, founder of the hunting and angling organization Enhancing Montana's Wildlife and Habitat, finds the court's dismissal of Bowen's recent case troubling particularly in light of how Lake County handled his past investigation.
"As a conservation hunter and angler," she says, "I am angry that after such diligence, the county attorneys and judges decide, for certain individuals, to not follow through with a trial, instead dismissing not only the hard work by these wardens but the laws that were created for our benefit."