TV hunting show star Rod Owen & two prominent outfitters already convicted
OMAHA, Nebraska––Self-promoted online celebrity bowhunters and physical fitness trainers Josh and Sarah Bowmar are expected to be next to go to trial for their roles in the biggest poaching case ever busted in Nebraska.
Exactly when that will be, though, is uncertain. The Bowmars have since September 15, 2020 won three extensions of a deadline to respond to pretrial motions, with the current deadline set for November 12, 2020.
Unlike most of the defendants, the Bowmars have elected to fight charges enumerated in July 2020 by U.S. attorney Joseph P. Kelly in a 20-page grand jury indictment.
33 suspects already pleaded guilty
The case, five years in development by federal and Nebraska state investigators, has already netted guilty pleas to multiple federal and state charges from each of 33 previous defendants, including television hunting show star Rod Owen and Hidden Hills Outfitters co-owners Jacob and Conrad Hueftle.
Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon has already assessed penalties for violations of the federal Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act totaling $580,302 in fines and restitution, 53 years in revoked hunting and fishing privileges, and forfeiture of trophies from as many as 97 animals who were allegedly illegally killed. The victims included 30 white-tailed deer, 34 mule deer, six pronghorn antelope, and 27 wild turkeys.
Defense challenges the Lacey Act
The Lacey Act, the cornerstone of U.S. federal conservation law since 1900, prohibits transporting illegally acquired wildlife across state lines. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, in effect since 1918, prohibits trapping or killing most native migratory bird species, including birds of prey and waterfowl other than nonmigratory Canada geese and mute swans.
Representing the Bowmars, attorney G. Kline Preston, IV, of the Kline Preston Law Group in Nashville, Tennessee, told the magazine Deer & Deerhunting that “The Lacey Act is an abusive piece of federal legislation that is used to excessively punish hunters for alleged minor infractions which are the equivalent of a speeding ticket under state law.
‘The Lacey Act makes a traffic-like offense,” more closely resembling hit-and-run than a speeding ticket, in that no one dies from speeding by itself, “into a serious federal case,” Preston contended.
“Honest, ethical hunters”
“It is often abused,” Preston argued, “by forcing honest, ethical hunters to plead guilty in order to avoid the risk of excessive fines and substantial jail time.”
But those “honest, ethical hunters” could not be charged with Lacey Act violations if they were not also convicted of the poaching offenses that make transporting wildlife interstate a crime.
“The Bowmars have elected to stand on their rights and fight these charges before a jury,” Preston said, “rather than accept a deal. The Bowmars are fighting for their rights and those of other ethical hunters as well,” Preston finished.
Observed Deer & Deerhunting, “The grand jury charges against the Bowmars are lengthy and detailed. The allegations stem from a two-year period from 2015 to 2017, and include multiple charges of illegal baiting, hunting without permits, and for transporting harvested game across state lines, from the outfitter’s place in Nebraska to their home in Ohio.
“Hard Rack Candy”
“The grand jury also claims,” Deer & Deerhunting summarized, that “the Bowmars exploited for the mutual financial gain of both their business and Hidden Hills Outfitters LLC, a joint business venture they had with Hidden Hills Outfitters co-owner Jacob Hueftle, for the development, marketing, and sale of a deer feed or supplement” made by “an associated LLC” of which Josh Bowmar was chief executive officer.”
Responded defense attorney Preston, “There was never a viable business for a deer feed product. There was never a product on the market,” but the Lacey Act does not require an alleged violation to be economically successful for the action to be illegal.
Further, Jacob Hueftle, 30, reportedly acknowledged promoting deer feeds or supplements called PrimeTine and Hard Rack Candy as part of a plea bargain.
Outfitter fined $214,375
Sentenced on October 5, 2020, Jacob Hueftle drew the stiffest terms of any defendant so far: 30 months in federal prison, a fine of $214,375 to be paid as restitution to the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, and a 15-year ban from obtaining hunting licenses.
Jacob Hueftle was also ordered to forfeit or abandon his interest in a variety of weapons, trophy mounts, optics, electronic game cameras, and other hunting equipment used to poach wildlife.
Sentenced on October 28, 2020, brother Conrad Hueftle drew two years on probation, financial penalties totaling $7,500. Conrad Hueftle is barred from hunting, trapping, guiding, or otherwise assisting or being present with anyone engaging in hunting or for the duration of his probation.
118 clients from 21 states
“Hidden Hills Outfitters contracted hunting clients residing almost exclusively outside the state of Nebraska,” reported Gavin Higgins of the Sandhill Express in Broken Bow, Nebraska, where Hidden Hills Outfitters is headquartered.
Those clients included “at least 118 clients from 21 states.” Higgins wrote. “Hidden Hills Outfitters provided guiding and hunting services to contracted hunting clients for $2,500 to $7,000 depending upon the target species,” but substantially discounted hunts by clients whose videos helped to bring more business.
“The investigation determined that Hueftle and other Hidden Hills Outfitters associates intentionally established and maintained bait sites at or near client hunting locations for the purpose of taking big game or turkey,” Higgins continued. “Law enforcement determined that approximately 80% of the archery white-tailed deer clients killed their deer within a baited area, and that approximately half of Hidden Hills Outfitters rifle white-tailed deer hunting clients hunted and killed their deer within a baited area.
Allegedly shot falcons, hawks & kestrels with a rifle
“Other illegal hunting activity,” Higgins said, “included hunting mule deer within the Nebraska Mule Deer Conservation Area, altering hunting permits, taking turkey in excess of established bag limits, and taking mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and wild turkey with rifles or other prohibited weapons.
“It was also determined,” Higgins explained of the charges, that “Hueftle and other Hidden Hills Outfitters associates routinely killed non-game migratory birds with a rifle, including various native species of hawks or falcons such as red-tailed hawks and American kestrels, by shooting the birds while perched upon fence lines or electrical power lines.”
“Case started with a tip”
Added Omaha World Herald reporter Nancy Gaarder, “The case started with a tip that investigators won’t divulge and was undertaken jointly by agents with Nebraska Game & Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
The alleged perpetrators, Gaarder recounted, “shot animals who 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.
“Meat left to rot”
“The heads were cut off of some animals, with the meat left to rot,” Gaarder wrote. “Hidden Hills’ plea agreement says ‘J.H.’,” apparently Jacob Hueftle, “personally killed at least 100 nongame birds.”
Jacob Hueftle, Gaarder continued, had already “been convicted of violating federal hunting law and sentenced to probation for five years,” in 2012.
Nonetheless, Gaarder explained, “Later that year, he began operating Hidden Hills. Opening an outfitting business was legal under his probation, according to court documents, but he was banned from using weapons or killing animals himself — probation restrictions that he violated.”
Added Gaarder, “According to court records, Hidden Hills drummed up business online and at out-of-state events, including the Great American Outdoor Show, a nine-day event in Pennsylvania that bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor show.”
But Hidden Hills Outfitters appears to have been promoted most successfully in videos produced by celebrity bowhunters, like the Bowmars and Rod Owen, 57, of Blue Springs, Missouri.
“Owen has been featured in Field & Stream and on the Outdoor Channel,” wrote Gaarder, “and was a cast member for the popular Drury Outdoors media company.”
For Drury, Gaarder recalled, Owen “participated in a celebrity reality hunting show called Dream Season, paired with professional bull rider J.W. ‘Ironman’ Hart,” and “touted his Nebraska hunts on Drury’s 100% Wild podcast.”
But “Owen knew that the animals were lured into range with bait — he even helped place some of the bait,” Gaarder noted.
Further, “two animals that he wounded with an arrow were ultimately killed with a rifle. In both instances, he misrepresented the hunt in video submitted to Drury Outdoors, according to court records.
“Owen made about $810 from Drury for one video and $3,067 on another,” Gaarder detailed. “In exchange for being promoted in the video, Hidden Hills halved the fee it charged Owen,” who “has been ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution.”
Josh & Sarah Bowmar may be the biggest trophies
The Hidden Hills Outfitters client fined the highest sum, so far, appears to be car dealer Duane S. Mulvaine, 40, of Fox Lake, Wisconsin. Mulvaine was assessed $95,000 and ordered to surrender trophy mounts of five mule deer, three white-tailed deer, three pronghorn antelope, a turkey and a badger, along with four scoped rifles, three sound suppressors, a compound bow and a crossbow.
But Josh and Sarah Bowmar may become the biggest trophies of the investigation for wildlife law enforcement, because of their prominence as online “influencers” of other young hunters and customers for hunting and bodybuilding paraphernalia.
Josh Todd Bowmar, 30, was a lifelong resident of Ohio before the couple relatively recently moved to Ankeny, Iowa. Sarah Bowmar, 31, was born Sarah Elizabeth Bakian in South Bend, Indiana.
The Bowmar Archery web page claims Josh Bowmar “participated in three National Collegiate Athletic Association sports and was awarded NCAA 2x Academic All American and Double Athletic All American honors in the same year in javelin and the 4×4. Additionally, Josh broke four university records in track and field.”
NCAA records show that Josh Bowmar, between 2009 and 2011, competed as a freshman sophomore, and junior for Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.
Heidelberg University is an NCAA Division III school, with annual enrollment of only about 500 male undergraduates eligible to participate in intercollegiate sports.
Middling javelin thrower by high school standards
Josh Bowmar participated in ten different track and field events, achieving four firsts, ten seconds, and ten thirds in 70 starts, but his best performances would be well short of school records even at many high schools.
Josh Bowmar threw the javelin as a sophomore and junior. The Heidelberg University Athletics web page credits Josh Bowmar as “All American” in javelin for the 2010-2011 academic year, but the NCAA record page shows him with one first in a javelin event, two seconds, and four thirds.
Josh Bowmar is credited with a longest javelin throw of 62.31 meters, or about 204 feet. Though javelin-throwing is not often a high school or even university event, top high schoolers who do throw the javelin routinely throw it farther. At least two high schoolers have exceeded 245 feet.
The NCAA collegiate javelin throwing record, standing since 1990, is 89.1 meters, about 292 feet, nearly half again farther than Josh Bowmar’s best, and is still 50 feet short of the world record.
Baited & speared black bear in Alberta
Also according to the Bowmar Archery web page, Josh and Sarah Bowmar, then purportedly a vegetarian and volunteer at the Toledo Area Humane Society in 2013-2014, met at a February 2014 bodybuilding competition.
By 2015 the Bowmars were a married couple, killing animals together and making videos about it.
On June 5, 2016, disclosed CBC staff reporter Verity Stevenson six weeks later, the Bowmars posted a video of Josh Bowmar “killing a black bear in Alberta with a spear,” which had a GoPro camera attached, to capture the death of the bear at the closest possible distance.
“In the video,” described Stevenson, “a black bear can be seen circling and then approaching the area that had been baited and where Bowmar stands nearby before he hits it with the spear.
“’He’s going down; I drilled him perfect,’ [Josh] Bowmar said, with dramatic background music playing on the video. ‘I just did something I don’t think anybody in the world has ever done — and that was spear a bear on the ground, on film. And I smoked him,’ he added, before fist-pumping Sarah, who was filming.”
Left wounded bear to die overnight
Continued Stevenson, “The video shows him returning the next day to retrieve the bear, who appeared to have been left overnight, ‘60 or 70 yards’ from where he was struck. The camera pans to the bear’s wound.”
The Bowmars had enjoyed sponsorship by the Under Armour underwear manufacturing company, but that came to a quick end three days after Stevenson’s broadcast.
“Under Armour and the Bowmars broke up today,” Sarah Bowmar tweeted on August 18, 2016. “I’ll do a blog post in a few days,” she said, “when I am no longer crying. #AntisWon.”
Spearing now banned in Alberta & 45 states
A gap in Alberta hunting laws precluded successfully prosecuting the Bowmars for using an illegal weapon to kill the bear.
However, the Alberta Ministry of Environment & Parks, the Alberta Fish & Game Association, and the Alberta SPCA pushed for an amendment which since 2018 makes hunting with a prohibited weapon, including a spear, punishable with a fine of up to $50,000 Canadian dollars, plus a year in jail.
Hunting various animals with a spear, especially feral pigs, remains legal in four U.S. states: Alabama, Hawaii, Alaska, and Oklahoma.
Missouri allows the use of a spear thrown with an atlatl, a device similar in concept to the ball-thrower many people use to exercise dogs. Atlatls were used by hunters to kill animals, including bears, for at least 40,000 years, but largely fell out of use after the invention of more accurate weapons including longbows, crossbows, and firearms.