This week, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials gave the media some incredibly disheartening news. DNA evidence confirmed that a gray wolf shot and killed by a hunter in December in southern Utah was none other than Echo, a three-year-old female who had journeyed over 750 miles since being collared in Wyoming at the start of 2014.
Echo's journey was followed by schoolchildren across the country. It was also heralded as a sign that gray wolves, which had been purged from the Grand Canyon region by a government eradication program in the early 19th century, were making a slow but steady comeback.
Then some idiot with a hunting rifle and not enough sense put a bullet through the first northern gray wolf to poke its head into region in 70 years.
About 5,500 wolves now live in the lower 48 states, occupying just 36% of their suitable range according to The Independent. Before the government decided to hunt them out of existence, there were nearly two million.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs officer Steve Segin told the Denver Post that the unnamed hunter had somehow mistaken Echo, who was both protected under the Endangered Species Act and wearing a radio tracking collar, for a garden-variety coyote. The shooter contacted wildlife officials andxplained that the shooting was an accident. A lengthy investigation is still ongoing; Segin told KTVN that it is "not clear yet what penalties the hunter could face for killing the animal." Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Hadley added that while the state was currently offering a bounty of $50 per slain coyote to hunters, the hunter in question was not registered under the program.
I contacted Segin via email on Friday, who told me that he "can’t share any more details as the investigation is still ongoing and the specifics are part of the case." Asked what penalties could apply in the case, he said he couldn't speculate while Fish and Wildlife was looking into the incident but directed me to Section 11 of the Endangered Species Act on the agency's website. That section establishes civil penalties including a fine of up to $25,000, while criminal penalties can range up to a $50,000 fine, one year imprisonment and the suspension or cancellation of any federally-issued hunting or fishing permits. There's some limited immunity from being held in violation of the act for people protecting "himself or herself, a member of his or her family, or any other individual, from bodily harm" at the hands of an endangered animal, but we can probably assume that Echo wasn't coming right for him. The state of Utah may assess additional penalties.
While the hunter says it was a case of mistaken identity, conservation groups are demanding that the hunter be held accountable for killing Echo. They're offering some pretty compelling evidence to back their case that the wolf's slaying was a federal crime. Wolves are much larger than coyotes, as well as differ in terms of leg and foot size and facial structure. Then there's the fact that the wolf was wearing a radio collar, which The Independent's Greta Hyland notes was obvious enough that another pair of hunters reported seeing a collared wolf in the area in November.
While lighting conditions and distance could have played into a mistake, someone who doesn't know the difference between a wolf and a coyote shouldn't be shooting at either. As Hyland writes, "Anyone claiming to be a hunter who could not tell the difference between a mule deer or an elk would be laughed out of the room and probably have their gun taken away."
"Wolves and coyotes are distinguishable if one pauses for a second before pulling a trigger," Center for Biological Diversity spokesman Michael Robinson told KVTN. "There are consequences for pulling the trigger when you don't know what you're aiming at. It's important to have justice for this animal." In a statement on the center's website, Robinson added that there was a dearth of education on the difference between wolves and similar species,
Unfortunately, this prosecution will likely never happen, even if it is found to be fully deserved. A 15-year-old loophole dubbed the McKittrick policy basically ensures that no hunter who claims he killed an endangered species by accident can be held criminally liable for doing so, unless prosecutors are able to prove that the suspect knew he was shooting at an endangered animal. Unless you're nailing poachers, that is more or less impossible. The guy who shot Echo would have landed in more hot water had he been caught killing one of Utah's trophy animals.
Hyland also adds that many Utah hunters seem dismissive or outright contemptuous of environmental laws designed to protect threatened or endangered species from being hunted into extinction, what she called the "shoot it, shovel it and shut up about it" mentality. Here's some samples of posts she pulled from the Monster Muleys forum on the subject:
- Maybe it's a younger wolf. I shot a wolf and I'm here to tell you, they're big! I'm not sure if they get 250lbs but damn they're hard to drag.
- How Deep's the Hole gotta be so they think the Collar has Malfunctioned?
- I can't believe the idiot turned himself in!
- These wolves need to be shot on sight. Having wolves in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and most other states was never part of the agreement that got them introduced into Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
There's your "respect for nature." Hyland says this attitude extends into the state legislature, where hunting and agricultural lobbyists have backed politicians disdainful of the state wildlife authorities.
Clearly, not all hunters are like that, and Echo could have been killed out of stupidity rather than malice or disregard for the law. But it's equally clear to me that claiming we care an awful lot about animals means nothing if regulations against shooting and killing endangered species are selectively enforced at best. Whoever was responsible for putting a bullet through Echo should face some penalty, even if they're likely to walk away with nothing but a slap on the wrist and a stern warning not to do it again.