An off-duty Nevada game warden who accidentally shot one more desert bighorn sheep than his tag allowed paid a $300 civil penalty and a $95 fine in a Nye County court after the state's chief game warden enlisted the help of an independent agency to investigate the November mishap.
Chief Game Warden Rob Buonamici discussed the case in telephone interviews this week after a Nevada Department of Wildlife employee blew the whistle on the department's handling of the case in emails the employee sent recently to wildlife commissioners and hunter advocates.
Buonamici said the off-duty game warden, Steven Tomac, obtained a legal tag through a big-game drawing and was accompanied on the Nov. 22 sheep hunt east of Lida Junction in the Stonewall Mountains by three other off-duty department employees and a couple of friends. The party included game wardens Joe Maslach and Donald Klebenow and biologist John Elliot.
"They're on this sheep hunt, and the game warden with this tag shoots a sheep, wounds the sheep. He follows up with a shot to take the sheep down," Buonamici said, explaining that another ram apparently darted out just when Tomac pulled the trigger for the second shot. But because of his narrow field of vision while looking through the rifle's scope from 275 yards away, Tomac didn't see the second ram, according to the investigation report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Kevin Ellis.
"The second sheep is basically an accidental kill," Buonamici said.
"The shooter shot what he believed was the wounded sheep, but another sheep ... basically ran in front of the other sheep by the time the bullet got there."
In a letter attached to investigation report, Tomac wrote that based on the rifle's velocity, the bullet struck the second ram in one-third of a second, enough time for it to run 10 feet in front of the first ram.
In his report, Ellis determined that Tomac fired four rounds at the first ram, three after he wounded it. He missed on the third shot, reloaded and took a fourth shot.
"This shot caused Ram 1 to go down and Tomac went to the ram and killed it by sticking a knife in the ram's heart," Ellis wrote, finding that Tomac, of Yerington, unlawfully killed a bighorn sheep without possessing a valid big game tag.
The whistle blower, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of a personnel matter in the department, said the bighorn sheep case was resolved in January in Beatty Justice Court. He said the incident caught his attention because, among other things, it wasn't assigned a case number.
Buonamici said no case number was assigned because when Tomac and the other wardens reported the mishap the day it happened, he immediately turned it over to an independent agency.
Previously, he said the incident was akin "to a traffic officer involved in an accident off-duty."
When Ellis completed the report he gave it to Nye County Deputy District Attorney John Friel of Tonopah, who recommended the fine and civil penalty.
Buonamici said Tomac was cited for the violation in Beatty Justice Court instead of the one in Tonopah because the father of one of the game wardens involved in the hunt is Tonopah Justice of the Peace Joe Maslach Sr.