Members of a Methow Valley ranching family have been charged in federal court in the killing of several endangered gray wolves and the attempt to illegally mail at least one of the pelts to Canada in a bloody box.
Seattle Times environment reporter
A federal grand jury Tuesday handed up a 12-count indictment that accuses Bill White and his son Tom White, of the Twisp area in Okanogan County, of poaching at least two wolves and then conspiring with Tom's wife, Erin White, to smuggle one of the pelts to an acquaintance in Alberta. The men may have killed another three of the endangered species, according to the indictment.
Activists pushing to see wolf populations restored in Washington applauded the charges.
"People who kill wolves are flat out poachers — people with disrespect for the law and for wildlife," said Mitch Friedman, of Conservation Northwest. "It's critical that we come down on them hard, and I'm glad to see that we are."
The indictment is the first to come after a rash of suspicious wolf deaths, many involving a group of animals known as the Lookout Pack, which took up residence in the Methow Valley in 2008.
One skinned gray-wolf carcass was found dumped by the roadside in Skagit County with a bullet hole in it. Meanwhile, the Lookout Pack's lone breeding female disappeared last year. She was wearing a radio collar that should have changed signals if she'd simply died. Instead it went silent, leaving state biologists to suspect it had been destroyed by a gunshot. She disappeared more than a year after federal agents began investigating the Whites.
Canis lupus was extirpated from the American West more than 70 years ago, but the animals were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Since then, wolves from there and from British Columbia have begun recolonizing Washington, thrilling conservationists and frustrating some livestock owners who fear wolves may decimate their herds of cows and sheep.
The White case surfaced in late 2008, when a woman walked into a FedEx office in Omak and attempted to mail what she said was a rug. The shipping agent refused to mail the package after he saw it was leaking blood. Omak police were called, discovered the pelt and sent it to wildlife agents who confirmed it was from a wolf, according to a search-warrant affidavit.
Investigators used security cameras to trace the woman and her car to the Whites' house. During a search of two homes occupied by the Whites near Lookout Mountain, agents seized a computer that included photos of Tom White posing with a large wolf with a damaged paw, the search-warrant affidavit said.
The indictment describes the case against the White family like this:
In late 2007, after reports of wolves began to surface in Eastern Washington, Bill White emailed a relative in Alaska asking for help in finding someone who knew how to snare wolves in a trap. Six weeks later he emailed someone that he and others were hunting three wolves near his home.
Tom White allegedly killed one wolf in mid-May 2008 and another in December, one of which he skinned, the indictment says. His father allegedly contacted a friend in Alberta and offered him "a really big coyote" for tanning.
Just before Christmas, according to the indictment, Erin White drove the pelt to the shipping agent in Omak and used a false name to attempt to send it to Canada.
Later, in January 2009, Bill White again sent an email to someone claiming he and others had shot two wolves in a group of nine and one wolf in a group of three. It's not clear whether he was claiming they had shot three more wolves, or three total. That same month, the indictment alleges, Bill White also illegally applied pesticides in a manner intended to kill wolves.
Bill White faces nine felony counts, including conspiracy and obstruction charges. If 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, while a conviction for his wife could lead to a sentence of more than 10 years.