One of the more interesting stories I ran across involved the poaching of wolves in Washington state in 2008. The following is based on news articles, information from Conservation NW as well as the actual reports from WDFW agents.
Since their delisting, more than 500 wolves have been killed by hunters and trappers in Idaho and Montana alone. [Photo courtesy of Conservation NW.]
Poaching the Pack
It was mid-afternoon, just a few days before Christmas, 2008, and a large white package sitting on the FedEx counter was addressed to Ralph Brausen of Hardisty, Alberta, Canada. The woman, who was dropping off the box at the FedEx shipping outlet at the Walmart in rural Omak, Washington, claimed her name was Allison and said that she needed to get it shipped out that day. Since it was so late in the day, the clerk told her it couldn’t be done. Allison took her package and headed back out to her red SUV.
She returned later that afternoon, unsuccessful at her attempt at the local post office. Allison, who had short, wavy brown hair and was wearing a pink shirt, black pants and a maroon jacket, needed to get the package out as soon as possible. She paid her shipping bill, declaring that the box contained a rug worth $50, and left Walmart. When the FedEx driver came to pick up the package, he refused the shipment because the package was leaking what appeared to be blood.
The clerk at the shipping outlet called the Omak Police and, when they opened the box, they found the unprocessed and untanned pelt of a wolf inside. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) agents were called in to investigate. The phone number that Allison had given with the package didn’t check out so the investigators started reviewing the Walmart surveillance tapes. Allison was seen on tape carrying the white package from her red SUV in the parking lot. Based on the vehicle filmed on camera, the agents narrowed it down to a few possible car models, but beyond that they had no immediate leads on who was responsible for the poaching of one of the few wolves known to exist in Washington State.
The Lookout Pack of the Methow Valley in north-central Washington was the first wolf pack to return to Washington State since their eradication in the 1930s. First sighted in the spring and summer of 2008, this pack consisted of six wolf pups and three adults. Based on DNA testing done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, this pack was 100% wolf and was genetically related to wolves from British Columbia or Alberta, Canada and had made their way to Washington from there.
Because gray wolves were a federally and state-listed endangered species, poaching one of the pack carried a heavy penalty. Killing a federally listed endangered animal is a federal crime and the penalty includes up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Because of this, in other areas of the U.S. where illegal wolf hunting occurs, the preferred method of many hunters is what they call “SSS” – shoot, shovel and shut-up. For example, in 2010, an Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings defended a charity fund-raiser titled the “.308 SSS Wolf Pack Raffle”. The first prize included a Winchester .308 rifle and a shovel. The sheriff in question claimed he was not advocating shooting federally protected wolves but that the raffle’s name stood for “safety, security and survival.” He neglected to mention the shovel.
Hunting Down the Killers
In late December 2008, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Special Agent Corky Roberts contacted the Alberta, Canada Department of Fish & Wildlife asking for information on Ralph Brausen, the addressee on the package that contained the bloody wolf pelt. Since you can legally kill wolves in Alberta, Canada, it is not unheard of for hunters who illegally kill wolves in one jurisdiction to ship or transport them to somewhere they can be legally taken in order for it to appear as if it had been harvested legally.
Suspecting this was the case, Agent Roberts requested Brausen’s hunting license, vehicle registration and other identifying information. The hunting license stated that Ralph had hosted a big game hunt for William White, of Washington State.
William White, a rancher who lived on Lookout Mountain Road near Twisp, WA, was the first person to successfully capture photos of wolves in Washington State using a trail camera located on or near his property. Earlier that year, White had notified the press about the images and sightings before contacting the WDFW, making it clear that he was not supportive of wolves being allowed to establish packs in Washington.
William White had a son and daughter-in-law named Tom and Erin White who resided on his property on Lookout Mountain Road. WDFW officers obtained identifying information for both of them, the DMV photo of Erin White closely resembling the woman calling herself “Allison” at the FedEx drop off in Walmart. Around the same time, officers saw a car that matched the description of Allison’s SUV and got the first 3 numbers of the license plate. They were able to track it down to a red 1999 Lincoln Navigator with the license registered to Tom White of Lookout Mountain Road in Twisp. A photo lineup was shown to the FedEx clerk and Erin was picked out of the pictures shown.
After analyzing samples from the FedEx package, forensic scientists were able to show that the wolf hide was indeed related to the wolves in the Lookout Pack. Because this poaching was in violation of both state and federal law, a search warrant was obtained for both Tom and William White’s residences for evidence in the federal investigation into the possession and attempted smuggling of an endangered gray wolf.
How to Skin a Wolf
Skinning a wolf is a delicate and difficult process that usually is done inside an outbuilding or a shed to make sure that no damage occurs to the hide during the skinning process. Tissues, sinew, hair and blood are usually left behind as remnants of the skinning process and can be found on the floors, tables, knives and saws that were used. These tissues contain DNA, which can be used to match the tissue to a specific animal and species of animal. The DNA in these tissues remains intact for long periods of time especially in a cold, dry environment like that found in the area near Twisp, WA. A trained forensic scientist can extract DNA from these tissues even after they have been imbedded in tools and surfaces for a long period of time.
Trappers and hunters usually take photos or videos of themselves with their kills as evidence of their prowess. This is no different when it comes to endangered animals. This photographic evidence can be found in photo albums, on videotapes, in undeveloped film negatives, on memory cards, computer disks, CDs, DVDs and computer hard drives. Hunters routinely keep the hides, skulls and claws of the animals they have killed, storing them in freezers, sheds or displaying them in the home as trophies. Many trappers and hunters will keep records, invoices, notes, letters, calendars, telephone numbers and addresses in order to document where, when and how their trophies were taken. If they are sold or transported, that information is kept as well.
On February 25, 2009, WDFW Special Agent Corky Roberts arrived at William White’s house to present the federal search warrant. At the same time, other agents went to Tom White’s residence with a similar warrant. William White explicitly waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak to the agents. He claimed he had no idea what they were talking about and stated that Erin White was in big trouble if she was trying to ship a wolf pelt. William’s wife, Suellen, was agitated during the interview, claiming they were being set up by the Forest Service for denying their employees access to the White’s property to look for wolves. She was also agitated at the idea of the agents taking their computer for evidence, claiming she desperately needed it for job hunting purposes.
Meanwhile, over at his son’s residence, Tom White had confessed to WDFW agents to killing the wolf and having his wife attempt to ship the wolf pelt. Tom claimed that he found the wolf caught in a fence and had to kill it in order to get it out. When William White was told of his son’s admission, he appeared oddly unphased, showing no surprise, as if he already knew about it.
During the interview with William White, Agent Roberts had stepped out to receive a phone call. The Canadian officers who had interviewed Ralph Brausen in Alberta stated that Ralph had admitted to talking with Bill White about a phone call he received from a police department about the package and wanted to know what was going on. Mr. Brausen also admitted that he had spoken with Bill in the previous year regarding the hunting of wolves in Alberta and whether or not he could have one tanned there if it was shipped to him in Canada.
This information ran counter to what Bill White had previously told the agents about his contact with Brausen. When questioned about this discrepancy, Bill stated that Brausen had indeed called him about the package but he said he didn’t know where or what was in it. He also added that it was the Omak Police that had called and that the package was leaking something. He denied any discussions about wolf pelt tanning and wolf hunting.
Upon further questioning, Bill then stated that he did, in fact, know about Tom’s killing of the wolf and admitted that he had lied to the agents earlier. He admitted that his son had come to him for Brausen’s address. He also admitted that he had asked Ralph the previous year about shipping pelts, but Bill denied any involvement with Tom and Erin in this particular incident and didn’t know that they had actually tried to ship the pelt.
At that point, the agents explained they would be continuing with the warrant, authorizing the seizure of their computer to look for correspondence with Ralph Brausen. Bill was also asked if he had any emails or photos on his computer in reference to the killing or shipping of wolves and he insisted there were none.
However, in addition to photographs of illegal treeing and hunting of bobcats and mountain lions, WDFW agents found several incriminating photos related to the wolf death on Bill White’s computer. In the photos, Tom White is shown holding a dead gray wolf in the woods (see above photo). Two of the photos show a severely injured left front paw that is consistent with a trap injury. The background of the photos showed heavily torn up ground and vegetation that is indicative of a trapped animal trying to free itself. There was no sign of a fence nor was any fence wire visible in any of the photos. On the ground there was a camouflage backpack with an unzipped padded rifle case lying on top. The lack of fencing and the injury to the wolf’s paw ran contrary to Tom White’s story about it being caught in a fence.
Emails found on Bill’s computer from 2008 stated that he and others were hunting three wolves near his home. In addition, in January, 2009, Bill White sent an email claiming he and others had shot two wolves in a group of nine and, later, one wolf in a group of three. It was unclear whether or not they had shot three more wolves or three total during that timeframe.
The indictment against Bill White, which didn’t occur until June 2011, also alleged that he had illegally applied pesticides in a manner intended to kill wolves. In the indictment, Bill faced nine felony counts, including conspiracy and obstruction charges. If he is convicted, the combined charges could result in decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. If Tom White is convicted, he faces up to eight years in prison. Erin White’s conviction could lead to more than ten years jail time.
When Bill White was indicted for wolf poaching in June 2011, he faced nine felony counts, including conspiracy and obstruction charges. If he were convicted, the combined charges could have resulted in decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. If Tom White were convicted, he faced up to eight years in prison. Erin White’s conviction could have led to more than ten years jail time.
The White's trial didn't occur until 2012 and the convictions (after plea bargaining) were as follows:
- Tom and his wife Erin agreed to pay $35,000 in fines
- Bill White received six months of home detention
- Tom White received three months of home detention
- State charges on other wildlife related crimes remain pending
Since the Lookout Pack wolves first returned to Washington State in 2008, the skinned carcass of a gray wolf was found dumped by the roadside in neighboring Skagit County, with a bullet hole in it. In 2010, the pack’s breeding female disappeared under suspicious circumstances, her radio collar mysteriously going silent. In 2008, the poaching of a young wolf was discovered and, over the years, other members of the Lookout Pack had disappeared, their bodies never found. By 2011, of the original nine members, only one adult male and one or two sub-adults remained, dispersed throughout the area, the pack no longer together.
As of 2012, biologists say the Lookout Mountain pack appears to be reforming. They also said another eight packs are believed to either exist or are developing in the state.
For more information on reducing poaching in Washington state, visit Conservation Northwest and to read their statement on the sentencing.