State and federal wildlife officials raided a wild-game barbecue near Irvine Lake on Friday, resulting in hundreds of angry, $75-per-person ticket holders being turned away at the gates.
About 15 investigators and agents of the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Wildlife Service descended on the site in cars and helicopters, some with guns drawn, officials said. But there were no arrests.
A state official said the raid was necessary because organizers of the so-called 25th annual Wild Game Feed had advertised the availability at the barbecue of some types of meat, including mountain lion, that is protected under California law and because state regulations prohibit charging money for wild game.
But others saw the raid as harassment.
"This is an annual event, so they had plenty of time to do this if anything was wrong, but they chose to do it only a half-hour before the event was supposed to start," said Paul Pomeroy of Lake Elsinore, one of those who was turned away. "It seems like this was a petty, vindictive type of operation."
Gordon Cribbs, district enforcement chief for state Department of Fish and Game, said the raid was part of an investigation in which search warrants were served on the event's organizers, but he could not recall their names when contacted at his home Saturday.
"In this process, we seized a number of wildlife carcasses," Cribbs said. "State law prohibits the sale of any wild game in California. . . . Also, they had a concessionaire out there. They thought they could have hard liquor, but the concessionaire was licensed only for beer and wine."
Cribbs said the 30 barbecue organizers who were on the scene at the time of the raid, which occurred at 10:30 a.m. Friday, were "very cooperative."
Among the meats advertised at the event were deer, elk, antelope, and pig, Cribbs said. There was no beef or chicken.
"Even if they were giving the stuff away, the legality of the situation would depend on the source of the game," Cribbs said. "It has to be properly documented that it was from legal takings, with proper tagging and stamping of the animals. Some carcasses had the documentation, but others didn't."
Cribbs conceded that the event had not been blocked in previous years despite authorities being aware of it.
"They move it around from place to place, and notices advertising it had gone out to only a few, select individuals in the past," Cribbs said. "We started to take a closer look at it and discovered it was becoming a bigger and bigger event, drawing 650 people or more. At $75 a person, that's a lot of money. There was the issue of what happens to the money. Where does it go?"
Cribbs said preliminary results of the investigation might be disclosed on Monday.
Meanwhile, he denied that the barbecue was ordered to close.
"We did not shut the event down," Cribbs insisted. "The organizers were given other opportunities to proceed, but for some reason they chose not to do so."
Cribbs said about half of the fish, two pigs and two deer were properly documented and could have been cooked at the barbecue but weren't.
Organizers of the event couldn't be reached for comment, but Pomeroy said they told him after the raid on Friday that no meat had been seized, no search warrant was served and thousands of pounds of food was wasted.
"I think that's absurd," said Pomeroy, who was among a group of 12 people who were turned away.
The manager at an Orange County gun shop said he had been offered a ticket to the event by a Pasadena-based sporting goods distributor, but attempts to contact the distributor on Saturday were unsuccessful. Employees at other gun stores denied knowing anything about the annual event.
Pomeroy said the event gives hunters and professional guides and outfitters a chance to get together informally. The guides and outfitters contribute the meat, he said, and by coming to the event they drum up business. But Pomeroy said he doesn't know the organizers' names or how the revenue from the event is distributed.
"There's an open bar, and you go from one place to another sampling the food," he said. "It's a big party."