Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Jeff Foiles Conundrum

Looking back on it.......not a fortuitous choice for a movie title
Note: February 2011 update here

I've been surprised and quite intrigued by the number of emails I have received about high-profile hunting guide Jeff Foiles over the last month.  Some are voicing opinions, and others are asking for mine.  For those of you outside the waterfowling world, Jeff is a famous and talented guide, as well as a TV/video host and a producer of pretty high quality waterfowl hunting gear.   In early December, a nearly EIGHT year long investigation of Jeff's hunting practices culminated with a grand jury returning a 23-count Federal indictment against him.  I believe he is to be arraigned in Federal court within the next week or two.   The complainants in the case include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, Illinois DNR, and Iowa DNR.
Jeff is charged with violations of the Lacey Act, a robust 110-year old Federal law intended to create speed bumps for the nation's commercial hunting industry during that era.  This is not like you or I pulling the trigger and killing either 1 or even 10 birds over our allowed limit.  Such a violation would be a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, among many other Federal and state laws.  No, the Lacey Act is different.
The Lacey Act isn't about "simple violations" like I described above.  The Lacey Act prohibits anyone from 1) buying or selling wildlife that was killed illegally, or 2) conducting a business dependent upon the illegal killing of wildlife.  In some ways, it is the natural resources equivalent of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).  RICO is an umbrella law to cover criminals who commit multiple separate crimes as part of a larger criminal enterprise.   For instance, you stole the money from the bank (federal crime), and then you intentionally did not report the cash as income on your tax forms, which is - legally speaking - stealing from the US Government, and then you invested those untaxed earnings in an illegal business, like black market pharmaceutical drugs (federal crime).  RICO allows the US Government to tie those all together - along with any possible "illegal earnings" - as one single, gigantic crime.
The Lacey Act is similar in scope.........and nearly as serious.  The indictment alleges (among numerous other things) that guided hunters were encourage to kill more birds than legally allowed (Federal crime), which resulted not only in higher cash tips for Jeff (not reported as taxes - Federal crime) and good references for Jeff's crew, but also allowed Jeff's crew to get more footage for upcoming hunting DVD's that would be sold for profit (in this case, a legal business funded by illegal profits).  Jeff is still awaiting his day in court, in which I assume he will either refute this, or state that he was entrapped by informants or law enforcement officials.  It's not inconceivable that he's right, at least to some degree.
But what I really want to discuss here is beyond Jeff Foiles, the indictment, and the perhaps hundreds of other inadmissable charges the Federales would have liked to charge him with.  I'd also like to go beyond the usual scope of this topic on message boards, which involves a whole lot of (quite accurate) "this is so bad for hunters' images!"  What I'd like to bring up here - and I'd like you to think about - is the culture of commodification in waterfowl hunting. The culture that allows guys like Jeff Foiles (innocent or otherwise) to become millionaires by flaunting excess "everything" - leg bands, kill shots, piles of birds, decoys, you name it.
Look at Jeff's picture above.  How many bands does he have? Do you ever feel bad for not having more bands on your lanyard? I sure have.  But I don't hunt in an area where there are a lot of banded birds.  Don't you imagine that 5 lbs of bands is heavy while setting out decoys? Or maybe those giant aluminum lanyards might shine in the sun and flare the geese?  Why is it soooo important that we focus on numbers like this?
The fact is, your average young waterfowler would rather have 20 bands on his/her lanyard from locally banded golf course geese, than 2 bands on his lanyard from ducks s/he killed in Argentina or Belize.  Think about how ridiculous that is!

What insane intrinsic valuation makes any of us think that this hunt:

was any more fun, memorable, or worthwhile than this hunt:

I know it seems like common sense when it's phrased that way, but the next time you (like me) see some pictures of guys hauling giant straps of ducks out of the marsh, be jealous of the day's story - not the harvest.  Our collective priorities - and our motivations for hunting -  allow a market to exist for movies like "One Over the Limit" and "Fallin' Skies" where the focus is kill shots - over and over and over.  And a hunting culture where the value of a winter day outdoors, or the dedication of a hunter, is determined by a collection of little aluminum bands that could have easily been purchased online, or as the Federales allege against Jeff Foiles, were taken from city park birds with a BB gun.

Think about all of that insanity the next time you venture out.  I hope it's a safe and wonderful time for you - work hard to not get distracted by nonsense commodities that mean so very little in the scheme of life, or even hunting.  I'll try, too.

Jeff's statement: Jeff Foiles an American Sportsman, respects the law relating to regulations of wildlife and hunting, and now faces an indictment (charges) accusing him of acting in violation of that respect.  Jeff appreciates the patience and understanding of friends, sponsers and supporters.  Because a court case is pending, His attorneys advise that He cannot comment on the indictment.


Trey said...

Interesting story and one that I will follow now. Thanks!

The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

I suppose I've got to look at this on two fronts, the first being how the outdoors is currently morphing for me and the second weighing the professional aspect against the personal aspect.

I'd have to say that my intentions, with my guide license, are not to become a full time whack em and stack em check out the bling on that leg guy. I'd like to think that I'd be able to foster part time hunts with the premise of enjoying what down east Maine has to offer which includes some fine sea duck hunting. In addition, I hope be able to use the license as an opportunity to trade hunts down the road and have the credibility of the fisheries and wildlife department behind me.

This is one of the more informative and enjoyable posts I've read to date, much appreciation for your time and energy in composing this...

Swamp Thing said...

Well, certainly it does get back to the "guide debate" that I had to mentally work myself through a couple years back.

At the time, I thought that the "greatest sin" was when guides failed to provide the minimum elements of a quality hunt (decent spot that isn't burnt out, quality decoys, boat that runs).

But if you approach it from this "hunting is not a commodity" standpoint, which you are doing (DEDH), the greatest sin becomes when that guide advertises "We R Gonna Wack N Stak eM! We killed 2000 geese on our ranch last year!"

I think your approach is refreshing, but also keep in mind that people are paying for the experience AND the opportunity to at least see, if not try to shoot, some ducks.

What's got to be hard for guides like yourself is all the clients who are used to the "other guys" - place where ethics/baiting laws/etc. go out the window in order to pile up some birds. If clients are convinced that that's "the right way to go," I don't know how you change their minds.

It's worth thinking about!

The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

Well raised points, I remember your post concerning the frustrations you encountered with the guide service. It is a priority to be well equipped and then one must ensure that reasonable opportunities are warranted. I currently have friends who are 1) doing well guiding sea duck hunts and 2) no longer guide. To exist here, there has to be a healthy balance between the efforts surrounding the hunt and the guide/client experience. Putting people onto the ducks won't be the problem, it's finding the clients who want to comeback but more importantly it will be the clients who I want to come back.

I figure that with some of my investments including an offshore hunting camp and other accommodations, over time I can include people in my experience. Sort of like when I take out first time hunters, most of whom are eager to get out on their next day off.

Breaking into this industry won't be easy, but I want to get into on my terms and still be able to enjoy the very reason why I wanted to become a Maine guide.

I've seen the rat race in the mid-coast area to get the boat in the water before the competition, rush to get to the "spot", and the risks associated with the almighty dollar. For that, I'll continue to diversify my incomes and hopefully offer unique opportunities for potential sports. It may not get me a full time job, but then again I don't want my passion to become as you correctly identified as a commodity.

Win, lose, or draw, I'll have people who will go out and make the choice to come back but more importantly I look forward to the friendships I make through the outdoor experience.

Thanks for the reply and making me think a bit,