OKANOGAN — An Eatonville man lost his car, more than $12,000 and six days of freedom for baiting and killing black bears at his Winthrop cabin.
James Erickson, 52, pleaded guilty in Okanogan County District Court Friday to 14 counts of bear baiting and three counts of unlawfully hunting big game and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, with 174 days suspended.
Officials say Erickson had baited bears for years, using donuts, bacon grease, fruit and other food to lure them to his Cub Creek property off the West Chewuch Road north of Winthrop so he could shoot them from his front porch.
But his lawyer said instead of citing him when they first noticed a violation, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife sat on the case until charges piled up.
“They’ve really made Mr. Erickson out to be a poster boy of hunting violations, yet he bought tags, the bears were shot in season, and they never proved he shot bears over the bait,” said his Wenatchee attorney, John Brangwin.
In the end, 60 percent of the charges were dismissed and five of the six defendants walked away without any penalties, he said. Erickson’s actions would have been legal before citizens passed an initiative banning the use of bait, he added.
As part of Friday’s plea deal, 26 additional counts of bear baiting and unlawful hunting, and charges against Erickson’s wife, son, daughter and two family friends were dropped, said Clay Hill, Okanogan County deputy prosecutor.
“Mr. Erickson is not an innocent man. He made mistakes,” his attorney said. “But Fish and Wildlife basically tarred and feathered this guy. He’d never had so much as a speeding ticket before this happened.”
But Hill said the case was about more than a simple hunting violation.
“You could tell from the digital evidence that this was his passion,” he said. He said he dismissed charges against the others because, although there was evidence against them, they got caught up in a baiting operation, but did not frequent the cabin as Erickson did. “He was the sun in this solar system, and the rest of the co-defendants just got pulled into his orbit,” Hill said.
The plea agreement ends years of investigation that included gathering evidence from Erickson’s remote wildlife cameras, tracking his trips to the Methow Valley, and — after obtaining warrants — searching his cabin and Eatonville home and seizing computers and other evidence, said Wildlife officer Dan Christensen.
He said evidence on Erickson’s computers showed he had been luring bears to his property at least since 2008, but a two-year statute of limitations prevented prosecutors from filing additional charges.
“He would start in April or May, and every two to three weeks he’d put 50 to 70 pounds of bait on the ground,” Christensen said.
Christensen said a dozen different bears were lured to the property.
“That continual feeding over and over and over makes them lose their fear of humans,” he said. And that poses a risk for others who live and recreate in the area, which is close to popular cross country skiing and mountain biking trails not far from Winthrop, he added.
Brangwin said Erickson will lose his hunting rights for five years. He also forfeited the 2007 Chevrolet Suburban used to transport bait and bears, and must pay $6,000 in civil penalties to Fish and Wildlife for unlawfully taking big game, along with $6,668 in court fines and fees.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512