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Wolf Whacking Must Go

On the heels of a wolf that was tortured and killed in Wyoming, Mountain Journal columnist Franz Camenzind says laws need to change

Following an investigation of a wolf that was tortured and killed in Wyoming, the state Game and Fish department cited a man for possessing a live wolf. The violation carried a $250 fine. Here, a lone female adult wolf trudges through the snow west of Tower Junction in the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Franz Camenzind
Following an investigation of a wolf that was tortured and killed in Wyoming, the state Game and Fish department cited a man for possessing a live wolf. The violation carried a $250 fine. Here, a lone female adult wolf trudges through the snow west of Tower Junction in the Northern Range of Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Franz Camenzind
EDITOR’S NOTE: Franz Camenzind holds a B.S. in biology from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, an M.S. in zoology from Brigham Young University, and a PhD in zoology from the University of Wyoming. His doctorate research involved six years of field research on the ecology and behavior of free-ranging coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He served for 13 years as executive director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance before retiring in 2009.
 
by Franz Camenzind
 
A wolf died a few weeks back; a Wyoming wolf, slowly and deliberately killed at the hands of a snowmobiler exhibiting little respect for the wolf’s life. Pursued through deep snow until near exhaustion, the wolf was eventually run over and severely wounded. The young canine was then tied up, its jaws bound shut with duct tape, and hauled to the pursuers home to be shock-collared and leashed.

If that barbaric act wasn’t enough, the culprit then proceeded to haul the traumatized wolf to the local bar and put on exhibit like an Old West carnival sideshow. Patrons were amused, some recorded videos and took selfies. All the while the wolf, tied up and muzzled, was left to cower in the corner, clearly in excruciating pain and fear. Surrounded by sights, sounds, smells and surfaces otherwise unknown, the tortured wolf was eventually “taken out back” and shot; a sad, but merciful climax to its hours-long torment.

Thanks to an anonymous tip, Wyoming Game and Fish initiated an investigation after which the culprit was cited for having a live wolf in possession, a charge carrying a maximum fine of $250, which he paid. It appears there were no other Wyoming state laws broken through this heinous act.

Ironically, if the perpetrator had immediately killed the wolf, he would not have broken any laws and the episode would have likely faded into Sublette County history, becoming nothing more than a footnote to the continuing saga of the West’s obsession with killing wolves, and predators in general. Instead, once made public, the
story of this brutal death elicited headlines and outrage throughout the country and beyond, being retold countless times even by international media. 

If there is any good to be found in this heartrending story, it’s that it has focused a spotlight on the archaic wildlife laws and the societal depth of the anti-wolf, anti-predator prejudices so prevalent throughout the West, and particularly in Wyoming.

This tragic drama allegedly began in the state’s infamous wolf “predator zone,” which encompasses 85 percent of Wyoming outside of the state’s Wolf Trophy Game area, where hunting regulations provide a modicum of protection and where the above event would have been illegal. Once wolves cross that arbitrary line into the predator zone, they join the seven other species officially designated as “predacious wildlife”: porcupines, red fox, stray cats, raccoons, jack rabbits (yes, jackrabbits), skunks, and coyotes.

Within the predator zone, a wolf, like the other seven condemned species, can be killed on sight whether it has threatened or caused harm to anyone or their property—or not. It can be killed at any time day or night and by nearly any means, including being run to death by snowmachines. No license or fee required. No accountability, no bag limit, just kill on sight, and as witnessed in this case: tortured. Wyoming’s animal cruelty laws simply don’t apply to wildlife designated as “predacious.” They are the lowest caste of our native wildlife, receiving little to no protection.
In Wyoming, it appears that the ethical treatment of wildlife and “fair chase” are nothing more than euphemisms.
This designation is so controversial and suspect that in 1999 the state removed “predacious species” management from Game and Fish jurisdiction and quietly assigned it to a new, little-known, single-focus agency: the Predatory Animal Damage Management Board, whose purpose is to “mitigate[ing] damage caused to livestock, wildlife and crops by predatory animals, predacious birds and depredating animals … ”

The board is supported by the state’s general fund, Game and Fish appropriations, and by voluntary fees paid by agriculture interests and individuals. It is not an agency managing for the betterment of our wildlife. Instead, it’s a control and eradication agency whose existence and programs tacitly validate and fuel the public’s erroneous beliefs that predacious animals need to be controlled at all costs. It’s fair to ask if the board’s actions are supported by best science and where they stand on the ethical treatment of all wildlife.

Compounding this “anything goes” mentality, the 2023 Wyoming Legislature passed a law that allows hunters to hunt predators on public land at night with the use of artificial light, including thermal and infrared imaging and night-vision goggles. The year prior, it became legal to use silencers on hunting rifles. And in 2019, a bill was introduced that would have prohibited the use of snowmobiles to pursue, injure or kill an animal, including predators. It failed to get out of committee.

The deck long stacked against predators continues to grow. In Wyoming, it appears that the ethical treatment of wildlife and “fair chase” are nothing more than euphemisms.

This horrific episode epitomizes the attitudes of too many westerners who view predators as threats and competitors; little more than inconvenient and worthless pests whose elimination, by whatever means has over time morphed into a fun-filled, recreational blood sport. Witness Wyoming’s annual “Best of the Best” statewide coyote killing contests with financial and product prizes for the most and biggest coyotes killed.
Spring in Northwestern Wyoming can mean scavenging for (or subsisting on) winter-kill leftovers. This adult male was found feeding along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone. Photo by Franz Camenzind
Spring in Northwestern Wyoming can mean scavenging for (or subsisting on) winter-kill leftovers. This adult male was found feeding along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone. Photo by Franz Camenzind

The state opines that current anticruelty laws do not apply to “predacious species,” only game animals and livestock. The ethical treatment of the public’s wildlife should apply to all wildlife; to all life. It should not be conditioned on some anthropocentrically applied status, or where it happens to reside. None of this means that wildlife proven to be causing significant damage cannot be controlled. However, the death sentence should not be imposed before guilt is proven, and the execution should be carried out in an ethical and humane manner.

Existing laws, government agencies and public attitudes towards predatory animals must change.

Several state leaders in Wyoming have expressed a reluctance, if not downright opposition to changing the laws. In response to this latest incident, one legislator, expressing a hesitance for change, said that every time you try to legislate on an isolated issue, you end up making the loop too big. Another said that laws written for one case typically don’t pan out as expected, and that he doubts the Wyoming cruelty statue will be changed due to this one incident and called it a once in a 100-year “aberration.”

As a reminder, in the winter of 2008 when wolves were first delisted and their management turned over to the state of Wyoming, an individual, again in Sublette County, bragged about chasing a wolf for 35 miles by snowmobile and finally, when the animal was exhausted and likely near death, the braggard shot the wolf from 30 yards. (Soon after, wolves were relisted and granted Endangered Species Act protection, then again delisted in 2017 and since managed by the state.)

These are but two incidents that gained public attention. How many more, as I’m sure there are, is of course unknown. Add to this the popular and well-broadcast running down and “whacking” of coyotes which occurs every winter, and we see a clear pattern to this unethical, however legal, behavior. This willful torture of wolves, coyotes and other “predacious” wildlife is not a one-off activity as some claim. It needs to be addressed for what it is: an ongoing, hateful and ignorance-driven depravity.
We need legislators and agencies to step up and act ... Hope has never been an effective management tool. 
The anti-predator prejudice is so imbedded within society that implementing and enforcing state or national regulations may be the best way forward. The poaching of a big game animal can result in the confiscation of the criminal’s weapons and vehicles used in commission of the crime. Stiff penalties like this do act as deterrents, whereas a narrowly imposed $250 fine is not a deterrent, and it appears that bad publicity is no more effective.

We must amend or write new laws to criminalize the unethical and cruel treatment of all animals and to specifically make it illegal to use a “snowmobile to willfully and wantonly cause the death, injury or undue suffering of any animal, including a predatory animal,” as the failed 2019 bill proposed. To accomplish this, we need legislators and agencies to step up and act, not just ramble platitudes and hope this “once in 100-year aberration” will not be repeated. Hope has never been an effective management tool.

To this end, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, and our legislators need to come together and formulate manageable, ethical, and enforceable anti-cruelty laws for all wildlife. A survey conducted years ago concluded that most westerners respect information provided by their wildlife agencies over that from all other agencies and groups. 

Now is the time for Wyoming Game and Fish to demonstrate leadership and initiate a comprehensive, long-term public campaign documenting the important role these “predacious animals” play in the health of Wyoming’s environment. It’s time to dispel our anti-predator prejudices and turn the lust for predator “whacking” into a commitment to respect and protect all native wildlife. Are our leaders listening? Will they respond with strong anti-cruelty legislation? Wildlife “whacking” must stop. Our wildlife deserves better.

If this approach fails, the next step might be for public land managers to prohibit off-road and off-trail snowmobile use.
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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.



Franz Camenzind
About Franz Camenzind

Dr. Franz Camenzind is a wildlife biologist turned filmmaker and environmental activist. In his career he conducted numerous wildlife assessments, often focusing on threatened and endangered species. He has produced award-winning documentary films on coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, pronghorn antelope, giant pandas, and black rhinos. Although now enjoying retirement in his Jackson, Wyoming home of 54 years, he is still very much involved in local, regional and national environmental issues. He spent 13 years as Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Prior to that, he served on its board for 13 years and was one of the founding board members of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. In addition, Camenzind writes a column for Mountain Journal called "Wild Ideas," often with a focus on the importance of Wilderness lands.
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