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Illegal hunt sting nets 18 arrests
Wisconsin man charged with transporting animals to state; claims he made wrong turn

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

Authorities have charged a Wisconsin man for allegedly bringing foxes to Limestone County for hunting, but the man claims he made a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong state.

He was one of 18 people arrested Saturday as part of "Operation Foxote."

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division served arrest warrants in 14 counties for the illegal trade, importation and possession of live foxes, coyotes and other wildlife.

According to Limestone County Sheriff's Department reports, Harold Paul Widder, 53, of Antigo, Wis., faces 12 counts of illegal transport of game animals. He is out of jail on $12,000 bond.

Widder denied trafficking in wild animals and said "everything got out of hand."

"These were not wild animals or anything. These are ranch-raised animals," Widder said. "I just made a wrong turn and wound up in the wrong state."

The state conservation office in Tanner and the Limestone County Courthouse were closed for Veterans Day, and information was not available about where the alleged hunt was to take place.

A press release on the state Conservation Department's Web site said "Operation Foxote" has been a two-year investigation that started in Alabama and extended across the Southeast. State fish and wildlife agents in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were involved in the investigation and are pursuing prosecution in their states for similar violations.

In Alabama, agents seized 25 coyotes, 55 foxes and two bobcats. In addition, they seized one moonshine still and 33 cardinals, which were presumably used as bait.

The animals involved were destined for fenced-fox-running enclosures where they would have been running stock for hounds, officials said.

Patrons pay a fee, usually about $25, for the privilege of running dogs inside these fenced areas.

Foxes confined to fenced running enclosures rarely survive long-term, according to conservation officials, and this creates the demand for a continuous supply of new animals for restocking.

In recent years, coyotes have become a popular substitute for foxes.

Traditional foxhunters in Alabama hunt unconfined foxes with hounds, and the animals have freedom of evasion and escape. The dogs rarely come into contact with foxes.

"Traditional forms of fox hunting embrace the concept of fair chase, and these hunters look on running pens with disdain," said Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' Division Director M.N. "Corky" Pugh.

Live foxes, cayotes

Investigators tracked the movements of major dealers through nine states. They also documented the illegal activity of trappers who captured and sold live foxes and coyotes, and also the operators of fenced running enclosures who purchased them.

In 1994, Alabama prohibited the possession and sale of live furbearers including fox and coyote due to potential disease and parasite risks.

For example, in 1993 coyotes imported from Texas were linked to the introduction of the Texas strain of rabies into Covington County.

Other diseases of concern are distemper and a tapeworm that can infect foxes, coyotes and humans. The tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis, which occurs in wild coyotes and foxes in other areas of the country, is not known to exist in the wild in Alabama. The parasite can be fatal in humans.

The animals seized in conjunction with Saturday's investigation are being tested for these and a variety of other diseases and parasites as a precautionary measure.

In addition to Widder, the others arrested, and their hometowns, are:

Howard Blevins of Asheville, N.C; Paul Tribble of Panama City Beach, Fla.; Don Willis of Franklin County; Charles Patton of Walker County; Billy Sellers of Houston County; Robert Boyd of Dale County; Calvin Wright of Clarke County; Sean Atchison, Charles Parnell, Charlie Howard and Charles Busby, all of Washington County; Denver Nichols of Lamar County; Edgar Smitherman of Chilton County; Greg Tew of Henry County; David Richburg of Covington County; Kenneth Carnley of Coffee County; and J.R. Edwards of Butler County.

The total combined charges on all defendants were 54 counts of importation of prohibited species; 121 counts of illegal sale/purchase of game animals; 121 counts of illegal possession of live game animals; 54 counts of illegal transportation of game animals; 11 counts of possession of game animals in closed season; three counts of trapping in closed season; and one count of possession of protected wild birds.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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