MEETEETSE, Wyo. - A rancher known here as a good steward of his land has been charged with illegally firing on a herd of elk with an assault rifle Jan. 16, leaving at least 10 animals either dead or crippled.
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
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
Investigators learned from an
employee of the 91 Ranch that Thomas owns an SKS
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
"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
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
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
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
The writer works in
Cody, Wyoming, for the Billings