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This story makes me wonder if the term “hunting ethics” still exists anymore.

Last month, 30 hunters from 21 states pleaded guilty to a cornucopia of illegal-hunting charges filed by Nebraska law enforcement officials. Other cases are still pending.

Those who pleaded guilty have been assessed $570,453 in fines and restitution.

According to a report in the Omaha World-Herald, the five-year investigation centered on Hidden Hills Outfitters, which operated out of a town called Broken Bow in the Sand Hills region of north-central Nebraska.

Jacob Hueftle, the company’s chief operating officer, has been sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. He also has been ordered to pay $214,375 in restitution.

Good. It’s also good that many, if not most, of the people who hunted illegally are being fined, too.

Still, it’s scant consolation to see that so many people are willing to break the law in order to bring home a trophy deer or pronghorn. The crimes they’re accused of aren’t ticky-tack technical violations. They include using rifles during archery season, shooting animals from roads, spotlighting, hunting without permits and hunting over bait. According to the allegations, some of them lied to investigators about who killed the animals and how they were killed.

It really bothers me that the alleged lawbreakers weren’t unwitting rubes being tricked into illegal acts by an unscrupulous outfitter.

According to the World-Herald story, many of them signed on for guided hunts at outdoor shows. It’s my experience that folks who attend such shows are veteran outdoors enthusiasts who wish to seek adventure in distant or exotic locales.

Hidden Hills’ sales pitch sounded really good. The outfitter claimed to have access to more than 200,000 acres in seven Nebraska counties.

It’s entirely possible some of those clients arrived in Nebraska unaware their outfitter engaged in illegal practices. Perhaps some of those folks, when they learned they’d have to break the law to bag their trophy, turned on their heels and left. If so, good for them.

On at least 97 occasions, however, they pulled a trigger or thumbed a bow’s release. The alleged toll: 30 white-tailed deer, 34 mule deer, four pronghorn and 27 turkeys.

That’s depressing.

Hunting has changed quite a bit in the last half-century or so. Gone is the day when hunters went into the woods and relied on woodsmanship, observation and luck. Today’s hunters set out dozens of game cameras, spend thousands of dollars creating food plots, and believe they’re actually hunting when they shoot a deer that has its muzzle buried in a corn trough.

I believe that ultimately, the public might come to view such practices as unfair chase. If that happens, they might grow so disgusted they legislate hunting out of existence.

West Virginia would probably be the last place that could happen, but the last domino in a line eventually topples. Wake up, people, before it does.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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