Game wardens say they cannot recall another slaying of so many big game animals all at once. But they acknowledge that wintering elk have long put pressure on public and private grazing lands.
Martin L. Thomas, 44, owner of the 91 Ranch, faces nine misdemeanor counts of wanton destruction of game, each carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000, plus restitution.
Ammunition found at the scene and examined at the Wyoming Crime Laboratory in Cheyenne showed that the elk had been shot with full-metal-jacket bullets that are likely to have been fired by a Russian SKS assault rifle, according to an affidavit signed by Wyoming Game and Fish warden Jerry Longobardi.
Investigators learned from an employee of the 91 Ranch that Thomas owns an SKS rifle.
Metal-jacketed bullets are rarely used by hunters because they do not flatten to kill the target immediately, Longobardi said. Many of the elk had been shot multiple times.
"It was just a sad scene all the way around," Longobardi said.
According to the affidavit, Thomas admitted to wardens the day of the shootings that he had been "chasing elk and shooting" above an oil field near the Short Fork of Meeteetse Creek, about five miles north and 10 miles west of Meeteetse.
Wildlife officials said they are puzzled by the elk slaughter because Thomas has in the past seemed to appreciate the hundreds of elk that winter on and around his ranch below Carter Mountain. Many of the elk migrate from the Thoroughfare Wilderness near the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park to the flanks of Carter Mountain, which the wind keeps clear of snow in winter.
Thomas runs some 800 cattle on his 15,957-acre ranch, which Longobardi called "one of the best ranches in the state of Wyoming and it's some of the best winter range in Wyoming."
Both The Nature Conservancy, which owns 2,000 acres adjacent to the 91 Ranch, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have talked with Thomas about trying to conserve the crucial elk winter range for coming years. Although the parties have not reached any agreements, their discussions are continuing.
"In our contact with him, he really seems to value what he has," said Keith Lenard, director of land conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming. "He really stands out as a landowner who knows the land and has real concern for it."
But he noted that cattle prices are low, pinching ranchers who must share their range with wildlife.
Longobardi said he has counted about 1,400 elk in the area of Thomas' ranch. Land ownership includes private, state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. Most of the elk allegedly shot by Thomas were found on private land, but it is illegal to destroy game either on public or private property.
Thomas has complained to state wildlife officials about the elk crowding his grazing land this winter, Longobardi said. Wardens have been reluctant to chase the animals off because more than half the land they use is public and is historical elk winter range.
"You run them off and where else do they have to go?" Longobardi asked.
State biologists believe local elk numbers are too high, he said. Last fall, wildlife managers had issued extra hunting licenses and extended the seasons for hunt areas along the route of elk that migrate toward the 91 Ranch in hopes of reducing the herd.
"We're working at it, but it takes time," Longobardi said. "He's carrying a burden and I know where he's coming from. I just wish he hadn't used these means."
Thomas has been issued a summons to appear in court, but no date was set as of mid-February. Two judges have removed themselves from hearing the case because they know Thomas.
* Michael Milstein
The writer works in Cody, Wyoming, for the Billings Gazette.