Jury tackles a question of ethics in Montana

  • One of the wolf cubs orphaned by Chad McKittrick

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

BILLINGS, Mont. - The three-day trial here last month of a man accused of shooting an endangered wolf ran like a morality play about the new American West and small-town Montana culture. This is a place where men enjoy their guns, hunting, beer and trucks, but as the accused, Chad McKittrick, soon discovered, there are societal and legal limits to those pastimes.

During a hunt for black bear near Red Lodge, Mont., last April, McKittrick shot a 122-pound male wolf and broke up a newly formed family. Romance had bloomed during Yellowstone's winter as two gray wolves from separate packs in western Canada met, bonded, and then hightailed it out of the protection of the national park. The silver-gray male, R-10, and his mate, R-9, passed into the deep snows and steep granite faces of the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range, where Ernest Hemingway shot grizzly bears in 1930.

The pair then took up residence in a forest a few miles south of Red Lodge, Mont., digging a den and preparing for the birth of pups. On April 24, the male wolf ventured into some open country in the foothills. He may have been hunting or just scouting, but he paused on a ridge top and gazed at the two figures below. A single gunshot cracked the mountain stillness. McKittrick's hunting partner, Dusty Steinmasel, recalled that as he watched through binoculars, "The wolf spun around, bit at the wound and hit the ground."

When the men reached the dead animal and saw its radio collar, they panicked, Steinmasel told a federal court in Billings last month. "I said, "Chad, this is a big fucking deal." I wanted to report it."

Chad McKittrick had other ideas. The two men left and drove around drinking cans of beer until they were inspired to return to the scene to get the dead wolf. They removed the radio collar with a wrench and trussed the wolf between two trees with hay-baling twine. Then they cut off the head and skinned out the hide, tossing the carcass into some bushes. McKittrick hauled the wolf pelt and head back to his home west of Red Lodge, while Steinmasel says he agonized over the shooting until wildlife agents searching the area came knocking at his door. He immediately spilled his guts, eventually becoming the government's star witness.

In return, he received legal immunity and the $13,000 reward for nabbing the wolf killer.

McKittrick's lawyer argued that his client thought the wolf was a wild dog marauding livestock. He said the shooting "was admittedly stupid, but not criminal."

The government prosecutor characterized McKittrick as "obsessed" with keeping the wolf pelt as a hunting trophy. He said McKittrick was enjoying his weird windfall of celebrity, which he hoped to parlay into a TV movie. McKittrick admitted he was wearing guns and a T-shirt that said, "Northern Rockies Wolf Reduction Program" while riding horseback in the Red Lodge Fourth of July parade.

Like the times, rules too have changed. Seventy years ago, when wolf hunting was legal, McKittrick would have been congratulated, not prosecuted. In fact, one Red Lodge rancher told Elizabeth Haledin of CBS News, off camera, that McKittrick "should be given a medal." Another resident told Haledin that McKittrick shot the wrong wolf; she said he should have shot the female - before it bore pups.

The trial threatened to become a symbolic battleground for the controversial wolf reintroduction policy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the jury of 12 Montanans, nearly all hunters, including some ranchers opposed to the policy, dismissed defense arguments of mistaken identity and looked beyond bio-politics. They cut straight to the law and, in their minds, to the ethical issue:

"Hunting ethics was the key," says juror Pat Cormier. "We all agreed that you must know your target before you pull the trigger."

McKittrick was found guilty of taking, transporting and possessing a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. His sentence has not yet been decided, but he could face over a year in jail and heavy fines. In an unrelated case, he is also charged with drunk driving and resisting arrest.

After the shooting, R-9 and her eight pups were taken back to Yellowstone and kept in a pen because biologists feared the nursing mother would starve without the father's help. Just before the trial, biologists released the mother and the healthy, growing pups back into the wilds of Yellowstone to take their place among the abundant herds of bison and elk.

Pat Dawson writes in Billings, Montana.

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].

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