Breaking down the news: Whitman County wolf poacher let off easy

Breaking down the news: Whitman County wolf poacher let off easy

Conservation Northwest / Sep 16, 2015 / Wolves

The wolf poached in Whitman County in October 2014. Photo: WDFW
By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

By now you know and are probably outraged that Jonathan Rasmussen, the southeast Washington farmer who last fall shot and killed a wolf (that was only going about its business), just received the ridiculously low sentence of a $100 fine and six months of probation.

It’s worth noting that this was the first wolf in almost a century known to have wandered into Whitman County, and that wolves remain protected as an Endangered species by the state.

What’s worth digging deeper into are associated statements made by the Whitman County Prosecutor, Denis Tracy, to justify his decision:

1)       “Public danger” defense: Rasmussen could have been expected to argue the wolf was a public danger and also that denying his ability to protect his home was an unconstitutional taking of property, Tracy said.

Really? The following two statements clarify that the only threat the wolf represented in this case was its mere existence. No specific threatening actions or behaviors have even been alleged.

Officer Douglas King’s case report states: “He at no point indicated that he thought he or his family was in imminent danger or that the animals at the horse barn were in immediate danger of being attacked. (He) stated that he thought if the wolf was allowed to live it would kill animals in the future.”

“We expected more from the prosecutor’s office,” said Capt. Dan Rahn, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police. “This was in a rural area, and the defendant basically chased the animal down with his vehicle, trying to keep up with it and shooting at it in various locations. It wasn’t threatening anything or anybody.”

2)       “Not in my backyard”: Tracy said that people said that Whitman County is not a wilderness. It has long-settled towns and farms, where wolves are no more appropriate than in Bellevue, and that it has many children who raise animals.

Mr. Tracy here is substituting his wisdom for that of the state legislature’s, whose job is to pass laws related to Endangered species. Our Endangered Species Statute (and the state’s Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan) do indeed apply fully to Whitman County. His job is to apply these laws, not second guess them. If he thinks the law shouldn’t apply to his county, he can advise his legislators accordingly.

As for the substance of his opinion, does he know that Bellevue is occupied by cougars, coyotes, and other wildlife? Has he actually studied the habitat suitability of Whitman County for wolves? Does he know about the ways in which ranchers and wolves are coexisting, or that scientific research suggests shooting wolves might actually increase conflicts with livestock? Because he apparently is in the dark on these matters, he should do his job and defer to WDFW its job.

3)       “My what big teeth you have…”: “They ask whether the kids should have to pick up a Winchester on the way to the barn every morning or evening to keep themselves and their animals safe,” stated Tracy, who added that the question was “worth asking.”

Thus revealing that Mr. Tracy knows nothing about the real world behavior of wolves. This again is why we taxpayers employ a Department of Fish and Wildlife, which we expect to be expert on these matters and develop policy accordingly.

At the end of the day, Mr. Tracy’s decision is comforting to poachers and potential poachers. It also highlights the need to limit prosecutorial discretion in this area, both by retaining federal listing of the gray wolf as Endangered in the western two thirds of Washington, and also by passing state legislation requiring large mandatory fines for the poaching of wolves. The fine for poaching a grizzly bear or woodland caribou in Washington is $12,000, but for wolves can apparently be as low as $100. That’s nearly the cost of hunting a wolf legally in Idaho ($180 for a non-resident). Olympia needs to fix this.