JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- A months-long investigation into the poaching of about 10, and possibly more, whitetail bucks in North Dakota’s Barnes County beginning in 2019 has ended in the conviction of four men.

“We charged them with the only ones that we could prove, which was right around 10 bucks,” said Greg Hastings, district game warden for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Jamestown and lead investigator in the case. “We suspected there were more deer taken, but we honestly don’t know.”

The four men were Jakob Ashline and Payne Drake, both of Valley City, and Calvin Bjornson and Ryan Rudolph, both of Spiritwood.

The convictions included, among other penalties, many misdemeanors, fines and fees:

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  • Ashline: 15 Class A misdemeanors; nine B misdemeanors; $7,900 in fines, fees and restitution; 53 days in jail; and loss of hunting/fishing/trapping privileges for 10 years.

  • Drake: One A misdemeanor; eight B misdemeanors; $850 in fines and fees; and loss of hunting/fishing/trapping privileges for two years.

  • Bjornson: Two A misdemeanors; one B misdemeanor; and $4,750 in fines and fees.

  • Rudolph: Four A misdemeanors; two B misdemeanors; $2,635 in fines, fees and restitution; and loss of hunting/fishing/trapping privileges for two years.

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In addition, Ashline forfeited two rifles and a spotlight; Rudolph forfeited one rifle and must complete 100 hours of community service; and Drake must complete 80 hours of community service.

Beginning in October 2019, department wardens began by investigating a buck shot near Valley City that had its antlers removed. Within a week, another buck, also missing its antlers, was discovered in nearly the same location. No meat was removed from either carcass, both of which were left to rot.

According to Mark Pollert, warden supervisor for Game and Fish in Jamestown, more suspicious, dead deer were reported to wardens later that fall, most near the Sheyenne River Valley from Lake Ashtabula to Kathryn. In two cases, antlers had been removed from the deer in the same manner and the carcasses left to waste.

In December 2019, game wardens, with assistance of warden pilot Jeff Sieger of Bismarck, conducted a night flight in hopes of developing suspects. That night, warden Michael Sedlacek of Fargo became involved in a ground pursuit of a vehicle that appeared to be illegally shining wildlife.

The vehicle eventually got stuck in the snow, and the shining suspects, who were not involved in the same case with the four eventually convicted men, were apprehended with the assistance of other wardens and law enforcement personnel. During an interview with the suspects, wardens discovered a photo of a large whitetail buck, which led to additional investigations.

“Catching those guys shining deer landed us a photo of a poached deer we’d been hearing about and got us to digging further,” Hastings said.

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Lots of digging followed.

“Like I’ve said multiple times, it was a lot of work, a lot of investigating,” Hastings said.

Wardens spent countless hours conducting interviews, served several warrants and collected evidence for safekeeping and DNA analysis.

Assisting Hastings with much of the investigation was warden Andrew Dahlgren of Edgeley. Seven wardens from the southeastern part of the state were involved in varying degrees in the complicated case, Pollert said.

“This investigation was highly complex and involved hundreds of warden hours to successfully complete,” said Scott Winkelman, Game and Fish Department enforcement division chief. “It really shows the excellent work our game wardens do on a daily basis. The entire investigation is a terrific example of how the public, game wardens and the state’s attorneys can work together to protect North Dakota’s wildlife.”