Letter from Utah — From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

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December 28, 2014, dawned auspiciously cold and clear in southwestern Utah. Two hunters, Doug Blackburn and Gray Hansen, had risen before the sun to drive into the high plateau country of the remote Tushar Mountains, where they planned to hunt cougar. A fresh layer of snow had fallen overnight, and animal tracks stood out as legibly as sentences on a page. The air was still, meaning that scents would be easily picked up by the five hounds that waited, impatient, in the back of their pickup.

The hunters drove slowly through a steep valley. Blackburn, a barber, was stationed behind the wheel, and Hansen, a sergeant major in the Utah National Guard, sat beside him. From the vehicle, they peered into the sagebrush. Suddenly, a flash of gray-brown fur interrupted their vigil.

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Grey Wolf, American Museum of Natural History, by Walton Ford

“Quick, shoot it!” Blackburn called out. Hansen, a trained marksman, took aim through a high-magnification scope attached to his .22-caliber rifle. He had a clear line of sight — an animal weighing close to ninety pounds was stalking through the low vegetation, about 175 yards away. He squeezed the trigger, and a sharp report rang through the valley. The mass of fur slumped to the ground. Hansen and Blackburn rushed up the hill, their footfalls muffled by the snow, and found the animal still breathing. Later, the two men would claim that they believed they had shot at a coyote. But in fact the creature at their feet was a gray wolf. One of the men — it’s not clear which — retrieved a pistol and shot the animal twice in the head. Only then did they notice its large paws and blocky snout; they also took note of the ungainly radio collar around its neck.

The wolf they had killed, a three-year-old female, was known to scientists as 914F and to the rest of the world as Echo, a name chosen by hundreds of schoolchildren in a contest. Earlier that year, she had become famous for completing an epic journey of more than 500 miles, setting out from the eastern fringes of Yellowstone National Park and, four months later, becoming the first documented wolf to arrive at the Grand Canyon in more than seventy years. After news of the shooting broke, there was widespread anger and sadness, but few considered the matter of 914F’s legal status.

In the area of Utah where 914F was shot, as in most of the United States, northern gray wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which makes killing an endangered animal punishable by up to a year in prison and as much as $50,000 in fines. Hansen and Blackburn, however, were never charged. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources quickly issued a press release declaring the shooting “accidental” — a ruling reaffirmed after a seven-month investigation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Not only did Hansen and Blackburn avoid imprisonment and fines, they escaped public scrutiny altogether. Until now, both men have remained anonymous.

Heavily redacted investigation documents I obtained from the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that Hansen and Blackburn had repeatedly told federal investigators that they thought they were shooting at a coyote. This was not merely a declaration of mistaken identity. The statement allowed them to evade prosecution using a loophole in the E.S.A. called the McKittrick Policy. The policy, which dates back to the final years of the Clinton Administration, and which some refer to as the Poacher Protection Act, has allowed people to kill endangered wildlife, claim ignorance, and escape without consequence.

In the hands of hunters, ranchers, and conservative politicians, the McKittrick Policy has been a potent weapon in a long-running campaign against wolves. But it has been especially insidious in Utah, where the state is trying to reduce the coyote population. “Someone can legally kill a protected wolf just by saying he thought it was a coyote,” Kirk Robinson, a conservationist based in Salt Lake City wrote to me in an email. “It’s basically a death warrant for wolves.”

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