Two Texas men pleaded guilty Wednesday to wildlife violations in U.S. District Court.
When formally sentenced on June 2, brothers James B. Butler Jr. and Marlin J. Butler of Martinsville, Texas, could face multiple years in jail and pay up to $50,000 in fines and restitution.
James Butler, 42, owned and operated Camp Lone Star, an outfitting business for deer hunters near Coldwater in southwest Kansas. Marlin Butler, 36, worked as a guide at the camp.
Wildlife law enforcement officials say the men were at the top of one of the largest deer poaching cases in history.
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Court records show more than 60 people used the guide service illegally, killing more than 100 deer, most of them trophy-sized whitetail or mule deer between 2005 and 2008.
Many of those clients are expected to face charges in coming months.
Camp Lone Star charged $3,500 for an archery hunt and $5,000 for a firearms deer hunt.
Both Butlers pleaded guilty to a count that included assisting clients in the illegal killing of 25 whitetail bucks of which Camp Lone Star received more than $77,000 in fees and tips.
Because most of the poached deer were transported across state borders, the Butlers and their clients violated the Lacey Act, a felony.
Marlin Butler also pleaded guilty to encouraging and assisting a client to hunt with a rifle during the archery deer season. He also illegally used a spotlight to illuminate a large buck so it could be shot after legal shooting hours by that client.
Marlin Butler's plea agreement includes 27 months in prison and about $20,000 in fines and restitution.
James Butler also pleaded guilty to selling an illegal deer permit to a client, which he illegally placed on a trophy buck. The outfitter then encouraged the same client to purchase another hunt and shoot another big buck a few days later. Kansas law allows hunters to kill one buck per year.
James Butler also pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy and obstruction of justice when he asked an employee to dispose of mounted deer heads that could be used as evidence.
James Butler's agreement includes about 41 months in prison and about $50,000 in fines and restitution.
U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown reminded both men the sentences they are scheduled to receive June 2 don't have to follow the plea agreement.
Originally the Butlers had been indicted on 23 federal and state charges.
A multi-year cooperative effort of U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agents, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department led to the charges.
Trophy deer hunting is a multimillion-dollar business in Kansas. Outfitters and guides sell hunts that often go for more than $5,000.
Many landowners and ranchers annually lease the hunting rights on their properties to outfitters or directly to hunters for thousands of dollars.
Some years, hunters from all 50 states come to Kansas hoping to shoot a big buck.
Keaton Kelso, Kansas Outfitters Association president, said poaching is an ongoing problem that affects Kansas in many ways. Every large buck killed illegally denies a legal and ethical hunter an opportunity that many have worked hard for.
"I know a lot of guys who try to do it right, try to work hard to do everything legal and they never get a (large trophy) buck in their life," Kelso said. "If someone's willing to cheat, like use a rifle during the November bow season, it's easy to get one. But it's not right. It's not hunting."
Many of Kansas' largest bucks are poached during the November breeding season when even the oldest bucks are more active.
Archers get to hunt within the breeding season, while firearms season normally opens later when bucks are more secretive.
Kelso also said trophy bucks that are illegally killed hurt the rural economy because they are bucks outfitters and landowners can't profit from.
"Farmers out there ought to be screaming," Kelso said. "All those big bucks being poached out there are worth a lot of money."
He also said that while the Butler brothers' case is a high-profile example, there is a lot more illegal killing by small-scale resident and non-resident poachers.
Kelso said most poachers are only after large bucks and aren't shooting the whitetail does that need to be killed to control Kansas' deer population.