An Unexpected Journey: Mark Carter
Photos: Aaron Dodds
Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 2 | The 10 Year Anniversary Issue
Pro rider, rancher and big game hunter Mark Carter explains how ignorance is no excuse when facing the long arm of the law in the wild west of Wyoming:
Out of nowhere I have federal agents come in hot – totally unbeknownst to me what is even happening. It’s six in the morning and they come in and raid us, do their thing and then they’re gone. We don’t hear anything for a year. We knew we were in trouble, but we didn’t know how much trouble. I knew that we were doing something wrong, which was selling ‘landowner tags’ for hunting elk. It wasn’t an uncommon practice on the land I grew up on. I knew that, but I had no idea the enormity of the situation and what was to come.
So to hear that we would be indicted on eleven felonies and four million dollars in fines was quite a shock. It was such a gnarly situation with the fines and thinking you’re going to prison for 55 years. It wasn’t even real. It was like a bad dream. All of that shit weighing on your mind is heavy. The worst part of it was thinking about my brother who has a wife and family and what would happen to them if this all of a sudden got real. I wasn’t worried about myself; I don’t have anyone depending on me to survive. It was an avalanche of charges and felt like the walls were coming down on me.
“Everyone is going to go through hard shit. Get kicked and smashed and run down into the ground, but what really matters is how you come out on the other side.”
To explain my deal real quick, my brother was a hunting outfitter and I was his hired guide. We had run a business hunting elk, deer and antelope in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. We were seasoned hunters, this was the land we grew up chasing game around on. We have a working cattle ranch in the mountains and a lot of these hunts were on our land. So every fall, hunters paid us for our guide service and a good chance to kill a big bull elk. The way we did this was to manage the animals in our area, which meant only hunting the biggest, most mature bull, or male elk – the ones that have had their time. This made room for the next generation to step into their place. We fed these animals on our land. We love the elk and depended on them for our own survival. Wyoming landowners, like my family, with a certain amount of land pay for and automatically get tags to hunt these animals as opposed to anyone else who has to apply for a tag through a lottery system. That said, many people out there do not get tags. So basically, guys would come out to hunt who didn’t draw a tag in the lottery using one of our tags. Every animal killed had a tag on it. Yet, because we were getting paid for our services as guides, it’s looked on as ‘selling a landowner tag’. What we didn’t know was that a few of our hunts were in violation of something called the Lacey Act, which has to do with interstate borders and that’s why the Feds came in.
It was two and a half years of waiting and wondering – enough to make your mind go crazy. The day of sentencing was probably the scariest day of my life. When you have to go to a federal courthouse and face a federal judge knowing your freedom is completely in her hands, and you have no power over the outcome – that is a hard pill to swallow. I was either going to walk out a free man, or be on my way to a federal detention facility and that’s some scary shit! I think the judge saw that we were basically good people and didn’t come down as hard as she could have. We admitted from the beginning what we did and took our punishment, which was a number of felonies, probation and $150,000+ in donations to be made to the state fish and game department for all of the Carter family. My brother had to serve time in prison as well. Words can’t describe how it felt to take my brother to prison and leave him there.
For me, to snowboard and maintain a pro career was just crazy during that time period. I had no business doing what I was doing considering the mental state I was in. Somehow I didn’t hurt myself, which was a miracle looking back. When you go through something like this you find out who your true friends are and luckily, I had many. So last year with everything cleared up I had the best winter I can remember. It showed in my riding, and more than that everything just felt good without that sinking feeling in my gut.
In the end, I’m not pointing fingers and saying the government did this or that – the fact is, I broke the law. I did. And I dealt with it and took my lashing. I could say that I’m disappointed with how the punishment fit the crime, but that’s not for me to decide. The severity of how they came at us was just a shock. I also learned that everyone gets their turn. Everyone is going to go through hard shit, get kicked and smashed and run down into the ground, but what really matters is how you come out on the other side. It’s what you learn from these things that matters most. I’m a much wiser man than I was before all this went down. I’m grateful for everything I have every single day because now I know what it feels like to have it all taken away from you in an instant.