A Murder Investigation Where the Victim is a Wolf

A Radio-collared Teanaway Pack wolf
A Radio-collared Teanaway Pack wolfWashington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On October 28, law enforcement officials recovered a body in the Wenatchee National Forest of western Washington state. A preliminary analysis revealed the victim was shot. Officials opened a criminal investigation, collected evidence from the crime scene and sent the body to a forensic lab.

So far, this might be considered an unremarkable, if tragic, crime. But the victim was the alpha female wolf from the Teanaway pack, which lives in the western two-thirds of the state where the animals are protected under federal and state Endangered Species Acts, and the investigators are not homicide detectives, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) employees.

This particular wolf wore a telemetry collar, which led officials to its carcass on the north side of the Paris Creek drainage in the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest. Preliminary necropsy results revealed the wolf was shot in the hindquarters and data from its collar indicate the shooting occurred around October 17. Brent Lawrence, USFWS public affairs officer, would not comment further on the details of this particular case while it remains an open investigation.

But Gary Young, a special agent for the USFWS office of enforcement, explained that this investigation will be approached "like any law enforcement entity approaches a crime." The area where the wolf was found is treated as a crime scene and investigators collect physical evidence, such as the carcass itself, bullet casings or spent cartridges, and items such as drink bottles or cans that might yield fingerprints. Photographic evidence might include tire tracks or footprints.

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Such evidence is sent to the U.S.FWS Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. "We request any number of different tests depending on the article," says Young. "On the carcass, we get a necropsy to determine cause of death. Something with a fingerprint, we try to identify persons who might have been there."

The U.S.FWS forensic lab, the only one in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife, has handled a number of wolf carcasses over the years, says director Ken Goddard. "The basic question is, how did this wolf die? We're looking for external and internal injuries, foreign objects such as bullets, bullet tracks, possible broken bones that might indicate a car impact, possible poisoning. If we find a bullet, we can possibly tell the investigators what kind of rifle or group of rifles to look for."

These investigations often hinge on tips from the public, and investigators are asking anyone with any information to call them (The number: 425-883-8122; there is also a Washington State anonymous tip line at 877-933-9847.) A group of conservation organizations are offering a reward of more than $15,000 for information that leads to conviction of the poacher or poachers involved.

One of the biggest challenges, Young says, is limited staff. There are only six wildlife law enforcement officers in Washington state. But because this case involves an endangered species and an individual animal critical to reintroduction of that species, it is top priority. An investigative report will be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the western district of Washington. A federal Endangered Species Act violation like this one carries a maximum fine of $100,000 or one year in jail.

In a wolf shooting last year in Washington, no charges were brought as there are provisions in the law allowing people to defend themselves if they feel their lives are threatened. In 1995, shortly after reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, one was killed just north of the park in Montana. The wolf was wearing a GPS collar that emits a mortality signal when the animal is not moving. "The wolf biologist was tracking the collar," says Defenders of Wildlife senior northwest representative Suzanne Stone, "and as they’re flying, they got this beep and followed it to someone’s house." Inside, officials found the head of the wolf and the collar, which the individual had kept for a souvenir.

In another case in Washington three years ago, someone illegally killed a wolf, skinned it, boxed up the hide and took to a FedEx office to ship it to Canada for taxidermy. The shipping company employee noticed blood leaking from the package and alerted authorities. "It’s an ongoing challenge and a real frustration," says Stone. "Wolves are very vulnerable to human persecution, that’s why they were eradicated in most of the 48 states."

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