Jurors on Okanogan Wolf Killing & Wolves in Washington State

For the last three years, there has been a lot of news coverage about the pack of wolves that moved from British Columbia down to Okanogan County, Washington.  Poaching has begun and many cases will be coming to court, testing the views of jurors on such subjects.  Let’s discuss the background, and th the problems courts will face.

Image of Okanogan Wolves

A photo of the wolves of Okanogan County caught on a motion sensing camera.

Wolves in Washington State

There have always been sporadic sightings of individual wolves in North Central Washington, but in the summer of 2008, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that a pack of wolves had made their home in the Methow Valley. See article. Although Washingtonians as a whole may have been pretty excited, most of the people of Okanogan County were hesitant to say the least.  Many ranchers wondered about the potential losses to their livestock, and hunters worried about fewer deer and elk.  Now, two years later it has been clear that not everyone has welcomed the wolf pack, and there is increasing evidence that certain people are trying to kill the pack off.  There is a growing sense of concern across the state that this pack might be lost.

Okanogan Wolf Killing

Last week I had court in Okanogan County, where I often go in my practice as a criminal defense lawyer.  There were filmmakers in court from the BBC doing a documentary about the wolfs.  Apparently, on the docket that day there was a defendant accused of shooting a wolf.  People are watching and waiting to see what comes of the investigation of Tom White and his son Bill White.  The Washington State Fish & Wildlife Agents executed a search warrant at the Whites’ home after they were alerted to a suspicious Fed Ex package that contained a wolf pelt.  The FedEx employee called authorities after noticing that some blood was leaking through the packaging.   According to news reports, the agents confronted Tom White about the shooting of wolves and he indicated that he shot the wolf because it was caught in a barbed wire fence. The agents claim that during the raid on White’s home they found a photo of Tom White posing with the wolf, and the photo showed a wolf with damage done to its paw consistent with a trap.

Rewards for Tips on Wolf Shootings

More recently, State officials and conservationists have become worried about the prospects of the survival of the pack.  A female wolf was being tracked with a radio collar last year until the signal was lost.  Because the radio signal stopped so abruptly, foul play was suspected.  To help deter poaching, Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest announced a reward of $7500 for information leading to the conviction of wolf poachers.  In an online story by K.C. Mehaffey of the Wenatchee-World, Friedman explained that he is concerned about the lack of prosecution: “I don’t know whether it is a matter of prioritization given in prosecutors’ offices, or whether these cases are inherently more difficult to prosecute because they happen in the woods.” Likewise, Mike Cenci, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife explained: “Some counties are very aggressive in pursuing natural resource law violators, and others, not so much.” Cenci explained that he has to continually “educate prosecutors’ offices with respect to the impacts that environmental or natural resource crime can have.”

Washington State Laws on Wolf Hunting

In my experience, prosecutors often struggle with the intricacies of our State’s fish and wildlife code.  The regulations and statutes on the subject are so complicated that it is often hard to even figure out the best way that the crime should be charged. Additionally, many of these poaching cases occur in remote areas of our national forests, and this often means that the venue for the trial will be in rural counties such as Okanogan County, Ferry County, Stevens County etc. Image of Attorney In such locales the sensibilities of the jurors can be startlingly different than in areas like King County.  Let’s face it, the way we view animals is largely the result of our culture and our upbringing.  In rural locations, people usually view bears, mountain lions, and wolves as a nuisance at best, and often times as an outright danger.  The jurors often times are the same people who have lost livestock or pets to carnivores.   Additionally, while attacks on humans by carnivores seems like remote concerns, these attacks figure centrally on the minds of local jurors.  Parents know there are documented attacks on children recently in North Central Washington.  In 2003, a Canadian boy was attacked while hiking in Stevens County.  See here.  In 1999, a cougar nearly killed a 4-year-old boy in Barstow, Washington, in Ferry County.  The child required 200 stitches to close head and neck wounds.  See here.  So, in these counties jurors just don’t seem to care really if someone is shooting bears, or cougars, or wolves.

Wolf Killing Trials

Let’s remember something about jury selections – it is largely a numbers game.  A jury for a felony poaching case in the State of Washington is composed of 12 people.   Let’s talk about how those 12 are selected.   On the morning of trial, the prosecutor and defense lawyer show up and are presented with a list of about 50 or 60 prospective jurors.   The lawyers are then free to ask the prospective jurors any questions they like.  A lawyer can quickly figure out who belongs to hunting groups, conservationist groups, environmental groups, the cattlemen association.  A lawyer can likewise ask prospective jurors who has lost pets or livestock to carnivores, or who has close friends or neighbors who have lost pets or livestock.  The standard jury questionnaire also provides information on how long a juror has lived in the county, thus providing crucial information on the person’s upbringing.   Under the law, for a jury of 12, each lawyer is given 6 peremptory strikes, meaning he or she can get rid of any juror for any reason.  So if a prospective juror is a self-described animal lover, or a conservationists, or never had so much as a fishing license, or just moved to the area from a major city, that juror is simply sent home by the defense.  A defense attorney can send all such jurors home with peremptory challenges, because in a rural jury pool of 40 people, no more than 6 such jurors exist.  It is important to note that in King County, the opposite is true, and the prosecutors send the hunters and sportspersons of  rural King County home, leaving the defendant to be judged by suburbanites and Seattle residents.

The difficulties of prosecutions in these cases are exacerbated by frequent investigations by Fish and Wildlife.  I was a prosecutor in Ferry County for about 7 years, and have worked as defense lawyer for 8 years since.  I have prosecuted or defended numerous cases involving bears and cougars, and also the trafficking of hides, or parts of an animal such as a bear gall.  Sometimes as a prosecutor I was frustrated by incomplete investigations, and often times these Fish and Wildlife agents seem to have a tin ear when it comes to how their investigations will look to jurors.  There seems to be a lot of overreaching on the part of the investigators, and jurors often will pick up on that.  Prosecutions for these sort of poaching cases is often times extremely time consuming and complex, and the laws are quite challenging even for the judges and the prosecutors to figure out.  For example, let’s look at the case of State v. Yon out of Spokane in 2008.  Fish and Wildlife agents conducted an elaborate sting operation against Jason Yon for allegedly buying bear gall bladders.  Apparently, the agents believed that the buying of bear gall bladders was a felony the whole time, and expended a great amount of resources.  Jason Yon’s attorney Richard Lee thought otherwise, and tried to “educate” the F&W on the law.  The laws on this crime were so complicated that the Court of Appeals finally had to step in, and the court resolved this issue in Yon’s favor.

Due to the difficulties in state court prosecutions for the killing of wolves in Washington State, it may be that the Fish & Wildlife department decides to request more prosecutions in federal court.

For other blog posts about similar subjects see my earlier posts on the laws of elk hunting, cougars in Discovery park, and cougars in Magnolia.

What do you think about the Okanogan wolf killing?  Under what circumstances is it justified for a resident to shoot a wolf in defense of his or her property?  Are small-town prosecutors trying their best to curtail poaching, or are they part of the problem?

2 Responses to “Jurors on Okanogan Wolf Killing & Wolves in Washington State”

  • Andy:

    The wolfs in washington is a bunch of bs. If the people in olympia and big cities want the wolfs around then they can put them in there own back yard and find out wat we are dealing with as cattleman. Thers a reason why they were put on the endangered speicies list in the first place because once the wild life is all gone were are They going to go. I dont think that any of the people that are saying they want them here have a clue wat they are capable of as a pack. They need to stay an endangerd speicies.

  • Stephanie:

    Wolves in washington state is just something that people need to get used to. In 2011 and 2012 there are certainly fewer wolves in washington state than there were 100 years ago.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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