A Montana man accused of poaching three elk in August faces new charges after investigators realized the extent of his criminal acts. 23-year-old Earl Russell Benes now faces 24 criminal counts that include eight felonies after an August incident in Musselshell County, The Independent Record reports.
The elk were illegally killed on Aug. 18 after Benes left a party at a Hutterite Colony on Highway 12. According to the report, Benes whipped out a semi-automatic pistol and “unloaded” it on a group of elk after he was forced to slow down as the herd crossed the road.
“I’ll make these bitches move,” Benes said, according to his statement to state game wardens.
His errant shots killed two trophy elk—one of which ran 75 yards and was found in a nearby field; the other ran for nearly a half mile and was found in the field of the Kilby Butte Colony. It’s unknown how long it took for either elk to die, especially the second one, and Benes has been charged with aggravated animal cruelty for its suffering.
Under Montana law, trophy elk are valued at $8,000 each.
Only three days later, according to The Independent Record, Benes reacted to being “called a name” by one of his passengers by getting out of his truck, leaning over the hood and shooting a bull elk with a 7 mm rifle. That incident occurred around Dean Creek Road and Goulding Creek. While the third illegally killed elk wasn’t quite trophy standard, the state is “also charging the third elk as a trophy elk.”
This case could be a turning point in how game violations are prosecuted. Musselshell County Attorney Kevin Peterson notes that in 2011, lawmakers “enacted an amendment opening up the state’s criminal code…for prosecution in game violations.” Prior to that, only the state’s game laws were used for charging hunting violations. In fact, Peterson believes that this may be the first jurisdiction in Montana to use the aggravated animal cruelty statute in a case like this.
“Typically, somebody’s poaching wildlife, somebody’s taking it home and keeping it in their freezer and consuming it,” said Peterson.
Overall, Benes faces three charges of criminal mischief and theft and 16 misdemeanor game violations along with other charges that include animal cruelty—all of which carry a maximum possible penalty of $278,500 in fines and 83 years in jail or prison. Benes had previously had his hunting privileges suspended in 2018 after he was found guilty of purposely killing antelope with his vehicle. Regardless, according to Musselshell County Defense Attorney Kelly Varnes, “his client would plead not guilty on all counts.”