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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.