An investigation into a Nebraska outfitter has turned into the biggest poaching case in Nebraska history, with more than 30 defendants pleading guilty to date and more cases still making their way through the court system. The outfitter at the heart of the case is now facing 2 1/2 years in federal prison for some of the most egregious abuses of state and federal game laws that I can remember.
Jacob Hueftle started Hidden Hills Outfitters in 2013, the year after he was convicted of violating federal hunting laws and was sentenced to five years probation. Hueftle wasn’t legally allowed to hunt under the terms of his probation, but the restrictions didn’t prohibit him from operating an outfitting business. According to authorities, the problems began soon after the business was formed.
Over about five years, investigators found, Hidden Hills Outfitters and its clients engaged in hunting practices that were illegal under either Nebraska or federal law.They shot animals that had been lured to them with bait and whose movements had been carefully scrutinized via trail cameras.
Some used rifles during archery season. Others hunted at night and with spotlights. Or lacked a permit. Or shot animals from the road. Or lied about who killed their animal and how it was killed.To hide their actions from others, hunters sometimes put noise suppressors on their guns.
And they sent their ill-gotten gains home, across state lines.
At least 97 game animals were illegally killed: 30 white-tailed deer, 34 mule deer, six pronghorn antelope and 27 turkeys.
In addition to the 97 game animals that were illegally harvested, prosecutors say that Hueftle and Hidden Hills were also responsible for the destruction of more than 100 migratory nongame birds that Hueftle and others used as target practice.
Among those ensnared by the investigation into the practices of Hidden Hills Outfitters was outdoor personality Rod Owen, who was ordered to pay about $50,000 in fines and restitution, though he was spared jail time.
Owen has been featured in Field & Stream and on the Outdoor Channel and was a cast member for the popular Drury Outdoors media company.
While working as a contract employee for Drury, he participated in a celebrity reality hunting show called “Dream Season.” He was paired with professional bull rider J.W. “Ironman” Hart.
Owen, of Blue Springs, Missouri, touted his Nebraska hunts on Drury’s “100% Wild Podcast.”“You got to use all your different skills when you get out there,” he said of the Nebraska Sand Hills. “You got to play to win.”
In reality, Owen knew that the animals were lured into range with bait — he even helped place some of the bait.
And while he’s gained fame for his prowess with a bow and arrow, two animals that he wounded with an arrow were ultimately killed with a rifle.He fired the shot that killed a wounded white-tailed deer, and a guide delivered the fatal shot to a mule deer.
In both instances, he misrepresented the hunt in video submitted to Drury Outdoors, according to court records.
For their part, Drury Outdoors says they had no prior knowledge of Owen’s violations and parted ways with the hunter when they learned of the charges. Owen was convicted in November of 2019, and was the 19th individual to face charges in connection with the investigation into the outfitter. Since then, eleven others have plead guilty to various state and federal charges, and prosecutors are tight-lipped about whether more individuals could face indictment in the investigation headed up by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Law Enforcement Division.
Be sure to read the excellent and in-depth summary of the investigation into Hidden Hills Outfitters and Jacob Hueftle. This wasn’t a case of a couple of inadvertent violations of obscure hunting laws. Hueftle operated with seeming indifference to most of the wildlife laws on the books, including a Nebraska state law that prohibits hunting within 200 yards of bait sites. According to prosecutors, Hueftle not only admitted to laying out more than 50 tons of bait between 2013 and 2017, but more than half of the white-tail hunters that he and his guides took to hunting property leased by the outfitter ended up hunting near bait sites.
Hunting already faces obstacles from non-hunters who see the practice as cruel to animals or an anachronism in a day and age where we can find good meat at our grocery stores. The last thing hunters and sportsmen need are shady outfitters and clients who knowingly flout the laws in order to make or take a quick buck at the expense of the rest of us.