Close the wolf-killer loophole

For the benefit of all endangered species, hunters should face consequences for killing vulnerable species.

 

President Obama has one more thing to do before he clears his desk in the Oval Office. He needs to fix a mistake from Bill Clinton’s administration that allows endangered species to be killed by hunters without any prosecution from the Department of Justice. This policy is named after a rifleman who shot one of the most important alpha wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

After biologists had returned wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem, Chad McKittrick was out bear hunting in Montana when he saw a large animal 140 yards away. He said to his companion, “That’s a wolf. I’m going to shoot it,” and he focused the scope on his Ruger M77 7mm magnum rifle, and fired.

A Mexican grey wolf slinks across the snow at Wildlife West Nature Park in Edgewood, New Mexico
Mark Watson/Flickr user

McKittrick approached the now-dead wolf and then saw that it wore a radio collar clearly marked Yellowstone National Park. He cut the animal’s head off, but left the paws. His friend, Dusty Steinmasel, used a special wrench to remove the collar, later throwing it into a creek where it continued to send a rapid series of beeps to wolf biologists, signaling that the wolf was dead. Investigators soon found the collar, and Steinmasel provided a written confession and enough evidence for a search warrant.

McKittrick, however, claimed he thought he was shooting at a feral dog. If so, why had he kept the head and hide? “Even in Montana they rarely mount dogs as game trophies,” author Renee Askins, who chronicles this event in her book, Shadow Mountain, wryly commented. 

In 1996, a jury of eight men and four women convicted McKittrick of three misdemeanor counts — killing an endangered species, possessing it, and transporting it. His sentence included three months in jail, three months in a halfway house, and $10,000 in restitution. At his trial, he testified that he thought the animal he killed was a rabid dog, and using this “mistaken identity” argument, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. McKittrick lost there, but then later won, after the Department of Justice backpedaled on its policy, as if in a rowboat approaching a waterfall.

The Justice Department named its new legal position the McKittrick Policy, giving lasting fame to the man who pulled a trigger on a Yellowstone wolf. The policy basically states that U.S. attorneys will prosecute someone accused of killing an Endangered Species Act-protected species only when they can prove that the killer specifically intended to kill an endangered species. The result: Wolves are sometimes shot by hunters who claim they were shooting coyotes — even though coyotes rarely wear radio collars.

WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance have sued the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court, arguing that “since the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program began in 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has catalogued 48 wolves that have been the victims of illegal killings.” The ongoing policy “has the practical effect of removing the threat of criminal prosecution for would-be wolf killers who are opposed to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf.”

The impacts of the McKittrick Policy continue to reverberate across the country. “Suspects in the killing of some of the nation’s most imperiled animals are escaping prosecution under the federal Endangered Species Act because of a Justice Department policy that some federal wildlife officials call a significant loophole in the law,” said reporter Deborah Schoch in the Los Angeles Times. She explained, “When the (McKittrick) case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Department lawyers re-examined the issue. They decided that the jury instructions prosecutors had argued for were wrong. … They decided a person could not be convicted of ‘knowingly’ killing an endangered animal unless prosecutors could prove that the person actually knew what kind of animal he or she had shot.” That’s bad news for many endangered species — and especially for wolves.

Kris Olson, former U.S. attorney for Oregon, laments, “I am ashamed to say that it was my colleagues in the Clinton administration who created the mess that followed — the new McKittrick Policy of requiring the prosecution to prove that the defendant knew it was an animal on the ESA list.  So the Court and Congress never addressed the issue; it was done internally by the executive branch and has wreaked havoc ever since.  It is a travesty, a violation of legislative intent, and should be rescinded.”

So, President Obama, before you leave office, eliminate the McKittrick Policy and let endangered species thrive. Even if the next administration tries to overturn your decision, you will have done the right thing.

 

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College, [email protected]

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • 40-ACRE LAMBORN MOUNTAIN RETREAT, PAONIA, CO
    One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • RECRUITMENT & HIRING MANAGER WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ATTORNEY (NM) AND POLICY ASSOCIATE/ANALYST (AZ & NV)
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAWKWATCH INTERNATIONAL
    We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER OF 2019
    Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • DONOR RELATIONS MANAGER
    This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • STREAMFLOW RESTORATION IMPLEMENTATION LEAD (ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER 4)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • SENIOR STORMWATER ENGINEER (ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER 5)
    Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • MAJOR GIFT OFFICER
    University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • MONTANA LAND STEWARD
    The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • 3 POSITIONS: ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR, AND FOREST PROGRAMS ASSOCIATE
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • CENTER FOR COLLABORATIVE CONSERVATION DIRECTOR, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
    The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • PROGRAM AND OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Program and Outreach Coordinator - Dolores River Boating Advocates, a conservation and recreation minded non-profit based in Dolores, CO, is hiring a 20 hour/week Program...
  • CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER/DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...