'Good' rancher goes berserk with an assault rifle

  • Diane Sylvain

 

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 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.

The writer works in Cody, Wyoming, for the Billings Gazette.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.