A Montana man recently received a criminal sentence in a high-profile—and drawn out—poaching case. On December 18, 2023, 27-year-old Earl Russell Benes was sentenced by District Court Judge Randal Spaulding in Musselshell County. Judge Spaulding doled out an $8,200 fine, 28 days in jail, and a 10-year-hunting ban. The punishments were far less than prosecutors had initially sought.
The sentencing is the culmination of a protracted poaching case that dates back to 2019, when according to reporting on court documents by the Helena Independent Record, Benes admitted to shooting three elk out of season from a vehicle over several days. Benes reportedly told wardens that he emptied a pistol into the herd of elk on the way home from a party to “make these ******* move.”
A district attorney filed two dozen charges including eight felonies. Had Benes been convicted on all counts, he would have faced up to $ 278,500 in fines and 83 years in prison. Additionally, prior to the 2019 incident, Benes had already had his hunting privileges revoked for an antelope poaching incident.
However, despite admitting to shooting multiple elk out of season, Benes managed to only be convicted by a jury in 2021 of poaching one elk on five charges: Hunting without a license, waste of a game animal, hunting during closed season, hunting over the limit, and hunting while suspended.
A former county attorney recently told the Helena Independent that he suspects Benes was able to duck the charges on two of the elk because prosecutors couldn’t find the handgun he used. In Montana, criminal verdicts must be unanimous, meaning just one dissenter in the jury could cause a conviction to fail.
Prosecutors had sought to revoke Benes’s hunting privileges for life—which seems reasonable, given Benes’s history of wildlife infractions. Benes must report to jail for his 28-day term within the next six months.