Three employees of a Jasper County plantation pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in Charleston to trapping and killing more than 30 great horned owls and red-tailed hawks to aid quail hunts.
The Mackay Point Plantation employees -- William Martin, 59, of Yemassee; Keith Gebhardt, 54, of Yemassee; and Mark Argetsinger, 63, of Beaufort -- were sentenced to six months of probation, 25 hours of community service, and a one-year ban on trapping, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Martin also paid a $1,000 fine, and Gebhardt paid a $500 fine.
The men, charged after a search of the plantation in February, trapped and shot the protected red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, which prey on quail.
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"Today's sentence sends a strong message to unscrupulous hunters and landowners who think they are above the law," U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in a prepared statement. The men were sentenced by U.S. Magistrate Bristow Merchant.
Merchant agreed to a light sentence because the owners of Mackay Point Plantation agreed to pay $250,000 in community restitution, one of the largest financial penalties paid for a fish and wildlife violation in state history, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
The money will benefit the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw and the Harry Hampton Wildlife Fund.
There was no evidence that the owners of the private plantation, Florida businessmen Bruce Anderson and Patrick Welsh, were involved in the illegal trapping, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined.
Mackay Point Plantation is an 8,000-acre "state-of-the-art hunting preserve" along the Tullifinny River, where deer, doves and ducks also are hunted, according to the attorney's office. It spans 26 miles on intracoastal rivers, has two large guest houses, horse stables and a hunting-dog kennel, the office said.
"It has 12 employees who manage the hunting preserve," an attorney's office news release said. "It is a private plantation and is used only by the owners and their family and friends."
Among the plantation's guests have been Dick Cheney, who hunted quail there in 2004 when he was vice president.
Martin is general manager of Mackay Point. Gebhardt trains the horses and the hunting dogs, and Argetsinger handles heavy equipment.
Each year, the employees would release about 6,000 quail for hunters. Baited steel traps were used to catch hawks and owls and then kill them, violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The practice of trapping birds of prey to improve hunting is widespread in the Southeast, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett Dehart. Prosecutors said they are working to bring charges against other plantations.
"This is one of the most serious wildlife cases in state history, and we hope it will send a deterrent effect," Dehart said.
DNR began investigating Mackay Point Plantation following a confidential tip several years ago, according to the attorney's office. A DNR officer then noticed a dead hawk near a river bank on the plantation, and the agency worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take surveillance footage along the river.
The videos show Argetsinger and Gebhardt trapping and shooting more than 30 hawks and owls, only during quail season, over a two-year period.
They often waited several days to kill the trapped birds, the footage showed.
Pete Richards, Fripp Island Audubon Club president, said it is disappointing that laws are necessary to protect the region's wildlife, but he appreciates the state's efforts to catch violators.
"DNR does a good job," Richards said. "We just can't imagine why (the defendants) would do this. The birds are such a magnificent part of the Lowcountry. One of the joys is watching our owls and eagles. The heart just lifts."
(Charleston) Post & Courier staff writer Bo Peterson contributed to this report. Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.