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ND outfitter pleads guilty to shooting eagle decoy

Associated Press Writer

FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- A western North Dakota outfitter who was arrested after shooting at a bald eagle decoy has pleaded guilty to a charge he attempted to kill a migratory bird.

Gary Stang, 63, pleaded guilty Thursday in a deal with prosecutors to the charge of attempting to take and kill a protected migratory bird.

He was arrested in March near his hunting excursion business, the same day investigators with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set up the stuffed eagle decoy as a way to lure him into shooting it.

"In his mind, when he pulled the trigger, it was a live bird," said Rich Grosz, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the plea deal, Stang was sentenced to a year of probation, a fine of more than $1,000, and the loss of hunting privileges in North America for one year. Stang also will give up a rifle, scope and ammunition. The plea was approved by U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles S. Miller in Bismarck, who also imposed the sentence.

He could have faced as much as 6 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

"We made our point," Hayden said of the plea deal. "It's not always about getting a big fine."

Agents had been investigating Stang for four years as a suspect in the shootings of protected birds like eagles, owls and hawks in an area near his business. Agents wouldn't give a number on how many birds he's suspected of killing.

Stang's attorney, Tom Dickson, said his client is under the mistaken impression that raptors - including eagles, hawks and owls - are hurting his business by preying on pheasants. Pheasant hunters pay Stang to set up excursions through his outfitting company, Good Life Hunting Company Bed and Breakfast. But those raptors are protected under a migratory bird treaty.

"Some of our older farmers have an irrational attitude toward birds of prey," Dickson said. "This would be one of those situations."

Grosz said Stang was a suspect for several years after investigators started "putting pins on the map" when looking into reports of dead raptors. The dead birds were being found in the area where Stang was known to hunt.

In 2004, undercover agents set up hunting trips with Stang and another outfitter, Warren Anderson, of Bowman.

Anderson eventually was arrested and pleaded guilty to federal charges. He was ordered to pay $60,000 in fines and restitution.

"Mr. Stang was put on a back burner, but we took another look last spring," Grosz said.

Investigators found a large bald eagle mount in the federal repository that was about to be destroyed and decided instead to put it to use.

The decoy was placed in a public area in March where Stang was known to patrol for raptors. Agents staking out the area saw Stang shoot it.

Grosz said it's the first time he has used a bald eagle decoy to catch a suspect.

"It's an alternative approach, but we had to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "Killing one of these birds is an unacceptable thing."

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