Alaska hunter fined $8,500 after Canadian authorities use photos to prove he shot Yukon sheep

Donald Lee is banned from hunting in Canada for five years after falsely declaring a sheep he shot in the Yukon as an Alaska harvest. The crime was uncovered by Canadian wildlife officers who matched landmarks in hunting photos to confirm the location of the kill.

Wildlife officers found a tree and other natural landmarks seen in hunting photos to prove location

Photos entered as evidence in a case against Alaska hunter Donald Lee, who claimed a sheep shot in the Yukon was an Alaska kill. The photo on the left shows Lee with the sheep. The photo on the right shows Yukon conservation officer Sean Cox in the same location, with arrows pointing out the natural landmarks proving that the animal was on the Canadian side of the border. (Yukon territorial court)

An Alaska hunter has been fined $8,500 and is banned from hunting in Canada for five years after falsely declaring a sheep he shot in the Yukon and then brought back across the border as an Alaska harvest. The crime was uncovered after Canadian investigators found a tree and other landmarks seen in hunting photos to confirm the location of the kill.

Donald Lee, of Fairbanks, Alaska, pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful export of the sheep under a federal law protecting wildlife and plants in Yukon territorial court in January. 

He was sentenced by Judge Karen Ruddy Wednesday. 

According to facts read to the court, Lee was hunting in Alaska's remote Nation River area, near the border with the Yukon and about 170 kilometres northwest of Dawson City, in August 2017 when he spotted a Fannin sheep.

Lee shot the sheep while he was standing in Alaska. However, when he went to check his kill, he crossed a forest cutline marking the international border and discovered that the sheep had been standing about 110 metres over on the Yukon side. He butchered and packed out the animal, later declaring it to U.S. authorities as an Alaska kill despite knowing the sheep was killed in Canada. 

Before doing so, however, Lee took photos of and with the sheep — photos he went on to share in a Facebook sheep hunting group, where he talked about bagging a "Yukon zebra" in an apparent reference to the dark markings on a Fannin sheep's coat.

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Canadian investigators use tree, other landmarks to confirm location

Photos entered as evidence in a case against Alaska hunter Donald Lee for illegally exporting a sheep from the Yukon. The photo on the left shows Lee with a sheep he shot. The photo on the right shows Yukon conservation officer Sean Cox in the same location. (Yukon territorial court)

The images were anonymously flagged to Canadian officials about a year later, along with a tip that the harvest had taken place near the border cutline at the 141st meridian. A wildlife officer with Environment Canada and a Yukon conservation officer took a helicopter into the area and were able to find the tree in the foreground of some of Lee's photos and, along with cross-referencing other natural landmarks in the images, confirmed that the sheep had been in the Yukon. 

Canadian officials charged Lee with one count each of unlawful hunting and unlawful export under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act in October 2020. 

During sentencing arguments, Crown prosecutor Noel Sinclair asked the court to impose a $12,500 fine and five-year hunting ban, citing Lee's false declaration as an aggravating factor and the need to send a deterrent to other hunters. 

Fannin sheep, Sinclair argued, are particularly coveted among hunters and, had Lee sought to legally hunt one in the Yukon, he would have had to hire a local outfitter. At the time, Fannin sheep packages would have cost around $19,000 in U.S. dollars. While the requested fine was less than the cost of doing legal business, Sinclair said it was mitigating that Lee otherwise had a clean record and had been cooperative throughout the legal process.

Lee, meanwhile, had asked for a $5,000 fine, the minimum allowed under the law. Appearing virtually, he told the court that he prided himself on being an ethical hunter and otherwise law-abiding citizen who hadn't even had a speeding ticket. 

While he acknowledged that he knew the sheep was in the Yukon once he went to check the carcass, he maintained that he didn't realize the animal was on the other side of the border when he took the shot, though he admitted he should have been more diligent. The sheep, he said, was moving and feeding at the time, and had he known it was still in Canada, he would have waited the 15 minutes it would have taken for it to cross into the U.S. before shooting. 

"I am regretful for the decisions I made that day," he said. "I can't return the animal to the mountain." 

The cutline marking the border between the Yukon and Alaska at the 141st merdian, in the Nation River area about 170 kilometres northwest of Dawson City. The photo was submitted as evidence in a case against Alaska hunter Donald Lee, who shot a sheep in the Yukon but declared it as an Alaska kill. (Yukon territorial court)

Unethical hunters will pay price, Crown says

Ruddy, in her sentencing decision, ultimately settled on a fine in the middle, saying that $5,000 wasn't enough for the seriousness of the offence but that $12,500 was too much given the mitigating factors as well as Lee's financial circumstances. In particular, she cited Lee's cooperation with authorities on both sides of the border, noting that he had willingly participated in Canadian court proceedings and had surrendered the sheep's shoulder trophy mount to Alaska authorities.

Of the $8,500 fine, $7,500 will go to the federal environmental damages fund, while $1,000 will be diverted to the Yukon's Turn in Poachers and Polluters (TIPP) line. Along with the five-year hunting ban, Ruddy also ordered Lee to surrender the trophy mount to Canadian authorities. 

Lee will have a year to pay the fine. 

The Crown stayed the other charge against Lee.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Sinclair thanked the members of the public who had flagged Lee's photos to Canadian authorities and said that while prosecutions of this nature aren't common, he hoped the case would send a message about the "price unethical hunters will pay." 

"I don't know too many people for whom $8,500 and the forfeiture of a multi-thousand-dollar shoulder-mounted sheep is something that, you know, isn't going to hurt them in the pocket book," he said. 

It's not the first time that a hunter's photos have led to a fine — two hunters from British Columbia were convicted in 2015 of illegally harvesting Yukon sheep 13 years earlier, with prosecutors using the hunters' own trophy hunting photos as evidence.