By MATT VOLZ
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Three Blackfeet tribal leaders were indicted Tuesday on charges they held illegal big-game hunts for a film crew and country music stars including Josh Thompson and Justin Moore, but supporters say the accusations stem from an internal tribal power struggle.
The men organized the hunts on the northwestern Montana reservation in 2010 and 2011. Federal prosecutors allege the hunts were unlicensed and the men illegally sold the tribe's wildlife, but supporters say the hunts were organized to boost the poverty-stricken reservation's economy and raise its profile.
Jay St. Goddard, Jay Wells and Gayle Skunkcap Jr. pleaded not guilty to six felony counts that include conspiracy, the illegal sale of tribal wildlife, theft from a tribal government receiving federal funds and making false statements. They made a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong in Great Falls.
None of the musicians is facing any charges. Publicists for Moore and Thompson did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press.
Thompson arrived on the country music scene in 2010 with the album "Way Out Here." Moore's "Outlaws Like Me" was a top 10 country album in 2011.
St. Goddard is a former member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the tribe's governing body, who was kicked off the council last year over the moose hunts. Wells is a suspended councilman, and Skunkcap was the tribe's fish and game director.
Federal prosecutors say in the indictment the three men made a deal to exchange big game hunts for exposure on a television show about hunting called The Sovereign Sportsman and for concerts by the country artists.
Thompson shot a bull elk in an October 2010 hunt that is featured on the Sovereign Sportsman Network's website. The video shows Thompson dancing with Blackfeet tribal members in traditional dress around a bonfire.
Eric Richey and co-host Forrest Parker created the hunting show, available on available on DirecTV and Dish Network. Richey said in the video the Blackfeet "rolled out the red carpet for us."
The show climaxed with Thompson taking a large elk with one rifle shot from about 50 yards.
"We celebrated, screamed probably like a bunch of freaks up there," Thompson said in the video.
Richey shot a black bear, Parker and another man a mule deer, according to the indictment.
In 2011, Moore shot a bull elk during a hunt and musician Mark Cooke shot a moose.
There are between five and 10 big-game hunting licenses available for non-tribal members each year, and they cost from $1,500 for a black bear to $17,000 for a bull elk.
The tribal leaders directed employees of the tribe to provide tags for the hunts and to help with logistics, and they used tribal money to by outfitting supplies and pay for a guide, according to the indictment.
More than a dozen supporters and family members drove to the hearing in Great Falls from the Blackfeet reservation, but they were not allowed in the courtroom because of a lack of space. They say the charges are trumped-up and instigated by a faction of the tribal council at odds with St. Goddard.
Four of the nine tribal council members have been suspended in the struggle for control between Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. and the minority faction that had been led by St. Goddard and Wells. They allege St. Goddard's dismissal and the suspension of four other tribal members was illegal.
The big-game charges are a case of tribal politics spilling over into the court, said Paul McEvers, another suspended councilman.
The hunts were conducted with the knowledge of the full council, McEvers said. They were seen as a way to raise the reservation's profile through the television exposure and to raise money by bringing the musicians to perform concerts on the reservation, he said.
But the tribal council members turned on each other, and the five-member faction led by Sharp used the big-game hunts as an excuse to boot St. Goddard from the council in March 2012, McEvers said. It not only exposed the divisiveness of tribal politics but also ruined a program that had been gaining momentum, he said.
"Now nobody's going to come," McEvers said.
The Tribal Business Council responded to McEvers in a statement that said politics has nothing to do with the charges, not every council member was aware of the hunts, and the tribe received no money from the hunts or the concerts.
"This is a case of these three men enriching themselves at the expense of the entire Tribe and acting as if they were doing the Tribe a favor by wining and dining professional musicians and opening up the treasure trove of all the Tribe's bountiful wildlife to them as if it were the private hunting preserve of St. Goddard, Wells and Skunkcap," Sharp said in the statement.