Kirt Darner, a former outfitter and owner of a private northwestern New Mexico elk hunting park, was sentenced to $10,000 in fines and 4,500 hours of community service Monday for illegally transporting elk and receiving stolen bighorn sheep heads.
Cibola County District Judge Camille Martinez-Olguin also ordered Darner to pay an undetermined amount of restitution to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and a taxidermy business in Montrose, Colo., where the sheep heads were stolen. Olguin ordered Darner to serve 25 weeks of community service a year for4 ½ years — 4,500 hours — in Colorado and New Mexico.
“Mr. Darner has learned that we will not tolerate people trying to profit by stealing wildlife that belongs to the citizens of New Mexico,” Cibola County District Attorney Lemuel Martinez said. “We will continue to aggressively prosecute these types of crimes.”
Darner, 69, pleaded guilty to the charges in June 2008. He faced a maximum penalty of 4 ½ years in jail and a minimum of $10,000 in fines and restitution. In a plea agreement accepted by Judge Martinez-Olguin, Darner also agreed never to hunt, fish or possess a firearm in his lifetime.
The investigation involved close cooperation among the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Kirt Darner, a nationally known big-game hunter and guide, and his wife, Paula Darner, were co-owners of a 40-acre game park on the Lobo Canyon Ranch north of Grants. They were indicted on multiple charges related to the possession of two trophy bighorn sheep heads and the illegal transport of stolen live elk. The Darners were accused of illegally moving three state-owned elk from the Lobo Canyon Ranch to the Pancho Peaks ranch and game park in southeastern New Mexico in 2005. Kirt Darner was paid $5,000 for each elk.
Department of Game and Fish officers who executed a search warrant at the Darner property in 2005 discovered a desert bighorn sheep head and a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep head inside a vehicle. Further examination of the heads determined that they were stolen from a Montrose, Colo., taxidermy shop in 2000. The Colorado Division of Wildlife had offered a $5,500 reward for information about the sheep-head thefts. At the time they were stolen, the sheep heads were estimated to be worth more than $20,000 each. At Monday’s sentencing hearing, a Colorado Division of Wildlife investigator testified that a former employee of Darner’s admitted to being paid to steal the sheep heads.
Previously, in Colorado, Darner was convicted of illegal possession of wildlife in 1994. In 1999 he was convicted of second degree tampering with evidence and careless driving in an incident in which he was serving as an outfitter. Division of Wildlife officers observed Darner’s client shoot at an elk decoy in a game management unit for which the client didn’t have a license. In 2008, Darner pleaded guilty to making a false statement in order to purchase a license. He had applied for landowner vouchers with the Department of Wildlife, but did not own enough property to be eligible for the program.
The Darners currently live in Crawford, Colo.