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.