Hunters acquitted of all charges in harassment case involving fellow hunters
A father and son from Big Lake were acquitted of harassing hunters Thursday in a case that highlighted the need for Hubbard County to regulate hunting land it opens to the public.
The cases of Stephen Donald Battin, 62, and Stephen Donald David Battin, 34, were decided in a few hours following a two-day trial in Hubbard County.
Each of the men was charged with Trespass and Hunter Harassment. Battin Sr. also faced a charge of First Degree Witness Tampering in the long-standing dispute with conservation officers and other hunters.
The trial became somewhat of a referendum of the availability of free hunting land, hunting leases and hunting ethics.
The Battins had been involved in a longstanding dispute with neighboring hunters in the Badoura area as to whether the Battins had been poaching deer out of season. It began in 2008.
The jury didn't hear much of the history of the feud between the Battins and the DNR. Conservation Officer Sam Hunter testified at the first trial that she found evidence of deer baiting during a flyover in 2010. That was what sparked the first investigation, which led to charges of poaching. Stephen Battin Jr., was not charged in the first incident.
In 2011, Battin Sr., and his friend Dennis Cook were sentenced in May 2011 to electronic home monitoring after DNR officers investigated reports of poaching and found marijuana growing on leased hunting land near Badoura.
In that case, Battin Sr. pled guilty to Hunter Harassment and a Third Degree Controlled Substance Crime. He was barred from possessing firearms for five years during his probation and evicted from the Potlatch land he and his son leased that year.
Cook pled guilty to the illegal taking of a deer and received two years of probation and loss of his hunting privileges during that time.
The Battins were charged in November 2011 for allegedly returning to the leased land and threatening the hunters who lodged the initial complaint. Both Battin Sr. and Cook were prohibited from being on the land, according to the criminal complaints.
But there were no restrictions on the men hunting on free public land. Brothers John and Dan Faust testified the men evicted them from their county hunting spot and harassed them by spraypainting graffiti on their hunting shed in the area.
The Battins denied using intimidation or marking up the shed. The Fausts said they leased Potlatch land because the Battins "made it clear" returning to their county land spot would not have been in Fausts' best interests.
Hubbard County Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier has broached the subject of terminating county hunting leases on the theory that it gives certain families proprietary use of the lands in perpetuity.
County commissioners disagreed and said even more county land should be leased out to hunters so the county knows who is on the land and can collect a fee. No action was taken.
Both groups involved in the criminal case testified they had been hunting on the land for years and that when Potlatch Industries bought some of the county land, leasing policies changed years ago.
The county has had a policy of first-come, first served on its lands. But over time, the same parties used the land to the exclusion of others and trial testimony seemed to reinforce that. Hunters began erecting semi-permanent tree stands and scaffolding and establishing longtime camps.
When the Battins were evicted from their Potlatch land, they in turn took over the Fausts' longtime camp. Fausts eventually moved to Potlatch land.
According to the Battins' testimony, in 2011 when Fausts discovered them on their old spot, they accused the Battins of trespassing.
Members of the Battin family downplayed the confrontation, indicating the men all shook hands after the meeting near the trail.
Defense attorney Larry Kimball repeatedly asked the Fausts why they thought they were being intimidated when the Battins had the legal right to use the county land.
Juror Justin Bessler said, "Obviously the jury came to a unanimous verdict," and declined further comment.
"I'm disappointed and so are the victims," prosecutor Jonathan Frieden said of the verdict.
And as another hunting season begins that area of the county will likely get increased scrutiny this year.