Yellowstone lion

Livingston, Montana resident Austin Peterson, left, poses with friend Corbin Simmons and a mountain lion his hunting party shot and killed in Yellowstone National Park. "I apologize," Peterson told the News&Guide this week. “I know how serious it was and I definitely learned my lesson."

A Montana houndsman who knows the young men who committed the internationally infamous crime of killing a tomcat in Yellowstone National Park contends the hunters are being unfairly vilified.

Livingston resident Justin Duffy’s take is that the three 19- and 20-year-old hunters deserved what the court determined: multiyear hunting and fishing bans and $1,666 in fines. But a wrath the young men do not deserve, he said, is relentless threats and cyber bashing from “keyboard warriors” who are calling for their “heads on a stake.”

“It’s just uncalled for and doesn’t do anyone any good,” Duffy told the News&Guide. “I’ve hunted with Austin, and he’s a 20-year-old kid. He’s stupid. But he also works hard, and I’ve never heard of him lying.”

Austin Peterson was hound hunting for mountain lions south of Jardine, Montana, near the northern boundary of Yellowstone last December when his dogs followed a cat into the national park. Peterson and hunting partners Trey Junhke and Corbin Simmons killed the lion, which was shot eight times, in the park where hunting is prohibited.

When Yellowstone publicized the crime and named the Livingston men in early May, the incident made headlines and drew scorn around the country. The News&Guide reignited the online fury last week by publishing a story that pulled details from a law enforcement investigation report, including how congratulatory posts on social media tipped off authorities about the crime.

Reached this week, Peterson was contrite.

“I apologize,” he said. “I know how serious it was and definitely learned my lesson. I also want to make sure to apologize to the other houndsmen and the other hunters it affected.”

Peterson insisted that the hunters really did not know they were within Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres when they were pursuing the cougar. When they must have crossed into the park, he said, they were in “steep, nasty country” and did not notice any boundary signs. A GPS device Peterson used to track his hounds malfunctioned, he said.

Duffy, who uses his hounds to capture Yellowstone mountain lions for research, said GPS systems made specifically for hunting are designed to not function when they’re being used in areas off limits to hunting.

“When I go in the park my screen turns really dark purple-black, like ink,” Duffy said. “You really can’t read anything.

“It’s not an excuse,” he said. “It’s the hunter’s responsibility to know where he’s at.”

After realizing the blunder days later, the trio of hunters deleted online photos and did not report their error.

The decision to shoot the tomcat was made after watching it for a long time, Peterson said. Personally, he said, the killing part of mountain lion hunting is not gratifying — and much more often than not the cats go on to live another day.

“I saw a lot of people commenting about how it’s pathetic about how you guys are trophy hunting. ... that we’re just a bunch of bloodthirsty killers,” Peterson said. “When I first went cat hunting for the first time, I was young and dumb and thought it would be cool. But now, not many people probably have more respect for mountain lions than I do. I really love them.”

For Peterson the “poacher” label hurts deeply, and the three-year loss of his privileges will be a life-changer.

“I’m not like most people, where hunting is a couple weekends a year type of thing,” Peterson said. “I’m pretty much year-round doing everything, whether it’s spring bear hunting or running my dogs. That’s what I said in court: ‘I’d rather spend a couple weeks in jail than not be able to hunt for three years.’”

His dogs, he said, are “family” that he would never fathom getting rid of even though it’ll be years before he can resume his favorite outdoor pursuit: hound hunting.

Duffy lamented the black eye houndsmen and hunting receive whenever high-profile poaching incidents like this makes headlines. The social media comment board frenzies that go off, he said, drive a harmful and unnecessary wedge between people who hunt and those who don’t.

“That’s the sad part,” Duffy said. “There’s never going to be any more understanding between people when everybody thinks their side is right and they take a negative slant and just run with it.”

“These kids, all three have got a mom, all three got friends,” he said. “I just don’t understand why it’s so easy for people to demonize people they don’t agree with.”

At the News&Guide’s request, in order to expedite receiving results, Yellowstone officials published the law enforcement documents secured through the Freedom of Information Act in an online “reading room” accessible to anyone.

Sensationalistic tabloids across the Atlantic Ocean pounced on the report, creating characteristic clickbait by publishing error-laden stories.

The British newspaper The Sun, for example, incorrectly reported that the trio violated Yellowstone’s “one mountain lion per year” rule. In fact, hunting is never allowed in the park.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(11) comments

Lisa Robertson

Plastering social media with dead animals (legal and illegal kills) is an obsession that has no end in sight. A three-year ban on hunting, fishing and trapping doesn't include all animals which are taking the heat for target-practice and fun. In Wyoming, animals which don't require a license or permit to kill are "predatory animals" such as coyotes, wolves outside the trophy-game zone (85% of the state), small animals such as jackrabbits, porcupines, raccoon, red foxes and skunks. The killing never stops.

Maximilian Werner

"Peterson insisted that the hunters really did not know they were within Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres when they were pursuing the cougar." Tell me, Mike, did Duffy or Peterson add the part about "Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres," or do we have you to thank for that bit of subterfuge? The line is fine between providing relevant, neutral information and unnecessary information that reveals one's own leanings, but there is still a line.

Tony Rutherford

It's much clearer now, as to why the punishment these three receive was so "soft". Livingston, where these three reside, is also home of the Montana State Houndsmen Association. Yellowstone cougar research depends on hound hunters to tree cougars that are then darted for research purposes. So perhaps the warden and NP officer asked the judge to go easy on these three so that it wouldn't upset the relationship that researchers have with the hound hunting community? Perhaps that explains why the punishment was so stiff for the hound hunting group from Wisconsin?

Diane Henry

And the houndsman under contract with the park to catch cougars for research has hunted with at least one of the three, defending him in this story. I’m pretty sure I read in the transcripts that the warden said he would recommend misdemeanor v. felony. MT game wardens are too lenient.

Noah Osnos

The idea that every reprobate has friends and family is utterly immaterial to any discussion of their acts (illegal, or otherwise). Additionally, there was once a concept of responsibility, and we taught that privilege required taking responsibility for your actions. While it is true that some violent criminals get a slap on the wrist, the answer is not to let other crimes be treated as leniently. Additionally, it may be noted that many non-violent, near misdemeanor crimes warrant very heavy sentences. Incompetence and stupidity are not really good explanations for these young men's actions.

Jeff Maxwell

Three people, at least two hounds, powerful weaponry, sophisticated GPS, eight bullets - one dead mountain lion. What's to "love"?

Tony Rutherford

Nothing's to love....and I love to hunt. A big black eye for the hunting community....and two big black eyes for the hound hunting community.

Tony Rutherford

I doubt that any of these three young men are "stupid kids".....I'd bet they are intelligent adults that made poor choices, and continued to make poor choices in an attempt to get away with their crime? The hunting community, and especially the hound hunting community, truly needs to stop making excuses for these men. Hunters, nor hound hunters that play by the rules are a threat to hunting's, or hound hunting's future.....it's episodes like these that threaten what we love to do. Hunting with hounds is likely the first hunting privilege we'll see removed. We've seen it already in certain states, and we'll likely see it in others? So the behavior of hound hunters is under continuous public scrutiny. These young men knew where they were....and knew what they did was wrong.....how else could they explain the lies, and the attempted cover up? If the tracking system GPS monitor goes "black" when the system enters into an area where hunting is prohibited.....they would know at that very moment that they were in violation. This is where, and when the hunt should have ended. Actually, the hunt should have ended at the first treeing.....either with a kill or a video, and release. In Colorado when a lion is treed, cornered, or bayed.....the hunter has to make a decision to kill the lion or cease the chase. Quite honestly, the hound hunting community needs to lobby every state where hound hunting is legal and have those states adopt a policy of kill or release. It's should be unlawful to dislodge a treed lion, bear, etc. simply to continue the chase. A couple of years back, in Montana, four hunters from Wisconsin were involved in an illegal lion kill. I believe the kill took place on land open to lion hunting, and was during open season, but one or two of the hunters weren't licensed. Their fines were around $25,000. There were firearms, vehicles, gear, GPS equipment, etc. confiscated, monitored probation, and loss of hunting privileges, etc. The punishment for these three young men should have been similar.....perhaps more severe since the violation took place on a national park, and with knowledge? The message that some hunters may get from the punishment that these three received is that the reward may be worth the risk?

Terry Milan

It goes to a question of maturity. These guys would be kids if they try to buy a drink, a pack of cigarettes or, god forbid, got drafted. If they were drunken private school kids who hurled a beer bottle from a roof deck beaning an old lady below and nearly killing her... well oh well, boys will be boys. Didn't you ever do stuff like that I was asked? Well no, I was saved by the draft. The issue is the ever changing migration of the PC minded, where crimes against humans such as hard drug dealing, assault, battery and even murder move toward more leniency. Crimes like killing a bear in self defense, poaching an animal or running over a moose are moving toward capital punishment. From everything that I have observed so far, these aren't career criminals, no prior offenses against man nor beast. If they almost killed someone, given the right lawyer, they might get a slap on the wrist. These guys weren't afforded Miranda and took their punishment and that will probably be the last we ever hear of them. They are hunters too and if they value their hunting privileges , then this is the end of it.

Tony Rutherford

Read the interviews each of these young men granted. One's a hunting guide. One has a Montana gov e-mail address. One seems to hunt everyday? All were given their rights. Peterson who owned the hounds stated that this cat was definitely one worth going to into the park after. The punishment doesn't fit the violations.....based on the knowledge, intent and deceit. Hopefully, this is a wakeup call?

Jay Westemeier

And based on the results of those interviews, knowledge, intent and deceit, it's very clear that they definitely are considered to be poachers. I fault judges who continue to circumvent justice by issuing lax sentences for this type of offense. It not only lacks adequate deterrent for other potential law breakers, but also encourages the wrath of a large part of the general public. Judgements like this don't do anyone any good.

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