Letter from Utah — From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

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At the coyote-killing contest in Beaver, the body count mounted, and Natalie Ertz and I kept a lookout for Blackburn and Hansen. They didn’t turn up — nor did we encounter any state or federal wildlife officials, whose presence I might have expected. As the count was nearing an end, a man wearing a soiled camouflage-print cap asked the organizer, Brennen Orton, how he could get rid of the coyote carcasses after the night was over. “You can have them,” he offered.

“I don’t want ’em,” Orton replied. He said the man could submit the bodies for payment if he was registered under the coyote-bounty program. The man said he was not. Besides, he added, even if he had been, he wouldn’t want to go through all the work of cutting jawbones and scalps from the animals — a grisly and laborious process — for a mere fifty dollars each. Orton proposed the next best course of action. “Just take them out into the sagebrush and dump them,” he said. “Make sure you’re a few miles out and you’ll be fine.”

A week later, from my home in the Bay Area, I called Doug Blackburn. His voice came across the line in a heavy Western drawl. I asked if he was involved in the killing of a female wolf near Beaver, Utah, in 2014.

“Yep.”

“Were you the one who shot the wolf?” I asked.

“No,” Blackburn replied. “But I was right there. I would have done it, but he beat me,” he said, meaning Gray Hansen. “I was driving.” He told me he couldn’t say anything else and that his lawyer would be in touch.

3 Hansen’s wife, whom I managed to reach by phone last November, told me that he was in Washington on business. I asked if she knew anything about the killing of a wolf near Beaver the previous December, and she replied, without hesitation, “No comment.”

Calls to Hansen for comment went unanswered, but a few days later, Blackburn called back.3 This time he struck a far more penitent tone, but continued to maintain his innocence — which is to say, his ignorance. He told me that he and Hansen didn’t realize what they’d done until they picked up the animal. “Hell, I still thought it was a coyote,” he said. “Gray grabbed the back end and I grabbed it by the head, that’s when I felt something.” It was the radio collar. Unsure of what to do, the two weighed their options. “I said, ‘We better go to the fish cop’s house and tell him it’s got a collar on it.’ ” So they drove forty-five minutes to the home of a Utah D.W.R. officer (though wolves in that area fall under federal jurisdiction).

“I was born and raised in these mountains,” Blackburn said, recalling 914F. “That’s the last thing you think you’re going to see — a wolf. I still can’t believe it was here.”

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