Men Sentenced in Deaths of Migratory Birds in S.C.

     (CN) – Three South Carolina men have been sentenced for unlawful trapping and killing of migratory birds at a massive hunting preserve on the state’s border with Georgia. Prosecutors say the crime has become a widespread problem in the Southeast.
     The men, William Martin and Keith Gebhardt, of Yemassee, and Mark Argetsinger, of Beaufort, were sentenced by U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant in federal court in Charleston for violating of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
     Each man received six months probation, community service, a one-year ban on trapping, and a fine.
     In addition, the Mackay Point Plantation in Jasper County has agreed to pay $250,000 in community restitution — one of the largest financial penalties in the history of the Fish and Wildlife Service, prosecutors said.
     The plantation is billed as :a state-of-the-art” hunting preserve that has twenty-six (26) miles on intra-coastal rivers, two large guest houses, horse stables, and a hunting dog kennel.
     The plantation is divided into different hunting areas for deer, quail, doves, and ducks, and it has twelve employees who manage the hunting preserve. It is a private plantation and is used only by the owners and their family and friends.
     William Martin is the general manager of Mackay Point. Keith Gebhardt trains the horses and the hunting dogs. Mark Argetsinger handles the heavy equipment.
     Prosecutors said the preserve operators release about 6,000 quail each year on the plantation for the owners to hunt. Red-tail Hawks and Great Horned Owls are native to South Carolina, and these birds of prey eat quail as natural predators.
     In order to improve the quail hunting, Martin, Gebhardt, and Argetsinger placed dozens of baited, steel traps to kill hawks and owls. These hawks and owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be killed without a permit.
     Prosecutors said the situation came to their attention on a confidential tip. Shortly thereafter, a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer saw a dead hawk near the river bank on the plantation.
     The DNR and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agents installed cameras on the plantation over a two-year period, and the surveillance footage shows Argetsinger and Gebhardt trapping and shooting more than 30 hawks and owls. The trapping and killing occurred only during quail season.
     Prosecutors said the crime is more gruesome than it sounds because the birds often remained in painful traps for days before they were finally killed.
     In February 2014, a federal search warrant was executed at Mackay Point Plantation, and more traps and dead birds of prey were uncovered. Prosecutors said Argetsinger and Gebhardt were interviewed and confessed to unlawfully trapping and killing hawks and owls in order to improve the quail hunting. Martin, the plantation manager, was also implicated in the trapping. There is no evidence that the owners of Mackay Point were involved in the killing of the hawks and owls.
     Luis Santiago, Special Agent-in-Charge, Southeast Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said of today’s plea: “This case is an excellent example of the cooperative investigative efforts between the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and each agency’s strong commitment to investigate violations of wildlife laws. We take very seriously our mission to support our state counterpart wildlife enforcement agencies, and we will continue to aggressively pursue individuals as well as corporations who are involved in the illegal take of protected species of wildlife”.

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