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Northland man guilty in wolf-killing case gets month in halfway house, lifetime firearms ban

As punishments go, the month Vern Hoff must spend in a halfway house for his crime may pass quickly. But as a federal judge noted Thursday, the lifetime ban on firearms will require some big adjustments for the Northland man who took his new bride hunting for their honeymoon.

"Your inability to possess firearms is going to require a real change in lifestyle for you," U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery told Hoff as she sentenced him for his role in an ill-conceived caper and attempted cover-up involving two dead gray wolves in the Superior National Forest.

Hoff, of Finland, was one of two men indicted last July for killing the wolves; Hoff was also accused of lying about it to federal investigators. The other man took a plea bargain; Hoff went to trial.

In November, a federal jury in Duluth acquitted Hoff of conspiracy but convicted him of a felony count of lying to a federal officer and a misdemeanor count of violating the Endangered Species Act. At the time of the February 2010 incident, gray wolves were protected species, and hunting them was illegal. They were removed from the endangered list in Minnesota in January 2012.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino had asked Montgomery to lock Hoff up for at least three months, half the maximum called for by federal sentencing guidelines. The prosecutor said Hoff had long thumbed his nose at authority in general and wildlife laws in particular.

Hoff owns Vern Hoff Land Construction, a company with contracts to plow snow on forest roads and clear waste trees from federal land. He and his employees were on one such job the morning of Feb. 17, 2010, when the events that led to the charges unfolded. According to court documents:

Employees Kyler James Jensen, then 30, of Silver Bay and Samuel Underwood, then 39, of Aurora were driving to the work site in the Superior National Forest when they rounded a corner and came upon five gray wolves trotting down a freshly plowed road.

Jensen sped up. Ridges of plowed snow lined the narrow lane and the wolves had no escape. Jensen told Underwood, "I'm going to get me some wolves," hit the accelerator and ran over two of the animals.

The two men stopped at a clearing down the road. Jensen phoned Hoff and told him he'd killed two wolves.

Hoff then told Jensen to pick up the carcasses and bury them before the U.S. Forest Service forester they were working with arrived at the job site.

The men loaded the dead animals into the back of the truck. Later that day, Jensen bulldozed a trench and buried the carcasses.

He and Underwood -- who had protested the killings -- got off work about 5:30 p.m. and stopped at a bar for a couple of beers together.

Later that evening, Underwood went to Hoff's home. He was angry he hadn't been paid in two weeks, and told Hoff he wanted his money.

Things got heated. Hoff grabbed a pool cue and pointed it at his employee. Underwood grabbed the cue and snapped it over his knee, flinging the pieces to the floor. Hoff grabbed a shotgun and aimed it at Underwood.

Underwood grabbed that, too, wrestling it away from his boss. He told Hoff he'd return the shotgun when he got paid.

Hoff fired him and told him he'd mail his last paycheck to him.

Fuming, Underwood left and called the Lake County Sheriff's Office to report the assault (a state court jury eventually acquitted Hoff in the assault) and then called the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to report the incident with the wolves.

Later that night, DNR Conservation Officer Daniel Thomasen and Special Agent Ronald Kramer of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service met Underwood in the national forest. Underwood had told them about the incident and Hoff's involvement, and he planned to show them where Jensen buried the wolves.

As the three drove to the site, they encountered Jensen in his truck. Thomasen pulled him over and asked him what he was doing in the forest at 11:30 p.m.

"It probably has something to do with the two wolves that I hit this morning," Jensen replied.

Jensen had come back out to the forest to dig up the carcasses. The lawmen could see parts of the animals sticking out from beneath a tarp in the back of his pickup.

Jensen lacked a driver's license, and his lone passenger had been drinking, so Thomasen told Jensen to call someone to drive them home. He called Hoff.

In July, Hoff and Jensen were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to violate the Endangered Species Act. They were also charged with violating the act (Jensen with two counts, Hoff with one), and Hoff was named in an additional count of making a false statement to a federal officer.

Jensen took a plea bargain in November, pleading to the two counts of violating the Endangered Species Act. His sentencing is scheduled for Monday.