Four years ago, when some Washingtonians were celebrating and others decrying the upper-Methow Valley appearance of the Lookout wolf pack, the state's first breeding pack in 70 years, Tom White was out there in the Methow killing wolves.
Blood seeping from a wrapped FedEx package in Omak was the tell-tale clue. Three days before Christmas, a FedEx driver refused to pick up a package at Anchor Printing, a separate business in the Omak Walmart, because he had seen the blood. The owner called the cops. A police officer discovered what seemed to be the pelt of a freshly killed wolf. The package had been on its way to Alberta. The pelt's original owner had been a member of a federally protected endangered species. The feds got into the act. White, his wife and father were quickly identified.
A photograph found on one of the White's computer showed Tom White with the dead body of a second wolf. It turned out that in May and December, White had killed wolves near Twisp. He ultimately admitted killing the wolves. His wife, Erin White pled guilty to shipping the pelt under a false name. His father, William White, pled guilty to conspiracy to both kill and ship a federally-protected species. He also has pled guilty to illegally importing wildlife — he had poached a moose in Alberta — and hunting bears with dogs. Formal sentencing won't take place until July 11, but a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington has presumably earned William White a $38,500 fine and a felon's lifetime ban on gun ownership. Under their own plea agreements, Tom and Erin White face fines of $38,000 and $5,000. No one will go to jail.
By most people's standards, fines totaling roughly $81,000 add up to a pretty stiff penalty. But Conservation Northwest — which has been working for years to restore wolves in Washington and has joined forces with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to expand an enforcement reward fund that offers up to $7,500 for information that leads to the conviction of anyone who has killed a gray wolf and up to $5,000 if the poaching victim is a grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx, or fisher — thinks that the lack of jail time sends the wrong message.
"[P]otential poachers may reach a dangerous conclusion from the absence of any jail time in this plea outcome," Conservation Northwest executive director Mitch Friedman has written to Michael Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. Friedman has thanked Ormsby for his prosecution of poachers but has expressed a "fear ... that the plea deal is also out of step with the penalties handed down for poaching cases involving even non-endangered wildlife." Friedman's letter cites "examples of deer and elk poaching cases that resulted often in jail time, stiffer than what Mr. White stands to receive. ... The fine, probation and loss of arms and hunting privileges are substantial. But a sizable number of people profoundly dislike wolves and even boast about vigilantism. Some local blogs echo with the words, 'Shoot, shovel and shut up.' "
"(Bloggers) are likely to interpret the absence of jail time as the defining indicator," Friedman suggested. He said he is "also concerned about statements from Mr. White’s attorney implying that he was protecting livestock, a claim unsupported by evidence. The absence of jail time could be seen by stockmen that shooting wolves, and the legal risk it involves, is a reasonable cost of doing business."
Mike Cenci, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's chief of enforcement, acknowledged that point of view but also said that an $81,000 for one family is a "pretty big hit."
"[A jail sentence] would deter me, but I'm not sure it would deter a lot of people ... we throw people in jail all the time," Cenci said. "What's it take to go to jail? Poach an elk. Poach a deer. Poach a moose ... you're not going to get 80 grand [for poaching] any of those critters."
Cenci also said that poaching is a matter of culture as well as enforcement, particularly with respect to wolves.
"Where you live and what your background is has quite a bit to do with whether you're for restablishing wolves in this state or against it."
If you live in some parts of Okanogan County, feeling against wolf recovery still runs deep. After Jay Kehne, who works for Conservation Northwest, was named to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission late last year, the county Republican organization tried to get his appointment reversed — hostile letters appeared in the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle, and Chronicle editor and publisher Roger Harnack wrote a column under the headline, "Can Kehne truly represent us?"
The problem? Kehne was pegged as a wolf-lover. In reality, Kehne had been working with ranchers on conservation easements and telling people that all the various interest groups should find ways to work together. That didn't earn him a reputation for compromise, though. "Every time I give the 'work together' speech they call me an environmental radical," he has said.
You don't have to be a radical to realize that in a very small population of endangered animals, a handful of deaths can make a big difference. Poachers may already have bagged four members of the Lookout pack. The pack may not survive.
"Certainly, where wolves are concerned, I think that poaching has had a big impact on recovery," Cenci said. "Who knows how many wolves were poached before our agency agreed to recognize that they were present. Some were probably rmistaken for coyotes, at least initially."
With low population numbers, the poaching of one or two animals can have an impact, Cenci said. "[The Whites] have had an impact."