Justice, of a Sort, For a Wolf

 Randy Wells / Getty Images

On October 6, 2015, an Oregon man hunting coyotes on private property shot and killed a male gray wolf known as OR 22. The animal had been collared by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists two years earlier. The hunter, Brennon D. Witty, pleaded guilty in Grant County Justice Court in Canyon City to taking a threatened or endangered species. He was fined $1,000, ordered to pay $1,000 restitution to ODFW, and had to surrender the rifle used, a Savage .223 with a scope.

While defenders of wolves argue that a $2,000 fine for killing an endangered species is a pretty low bar, when it comes to wolf deaths across the West, any sort of punishment is unusual. For the most part — like in the case of the Grand Canyon wolf shot in Utah last year — shootings never even make it to the court room. 

Witty notified state police of the shooting, which occurred in Grant County, and he was initially charged with taking a threatened/endangered species and hunting with a rifle with no big-game tag, both Class A misdemeanors. Each carries a maximum of one year in jail and/or a $6,250 fine, and the lack of a big-game tag can result in loss or suspension of a hunting license. Witty’s defense was that he had mistaken the wolf for a coyote. As part of the plea deal, the first charge was reduced to an unlawful taking and the second was dismissed. Witty offered to surrender the rifle in lieu of having his hunting license suspended for 36 months.

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That part was Witty’s idea, said his attorney, Riccola Voigt. “It was important to him to keep his license. I want to say that Witty went above and beyond here.” She pointed out that he reported the incident as soon as possible, led law enforcement to the scene, and cooperated throughout the investigation.

Oregon requires no tags or permits to hunt coyotes, but hunters must have a valid hunting license. To hunt coyotes during any season for big game, hunters also need a tag for that big game in their possession.

There have been no significant developments in investigations into two other collared wolves illegally shot in Oregon last year: OR 34 from the Walla Walla pack on September 7, and OR 31 from the Mt. Emily pack on December 23. Both of those incidents occurred in isolated areas and remain under investigation by Oregon State Police, according to Sergeant Tim Brown.

Wolves in Oregon collectively took a shot from the ODFW Commission, which removed them from the state endangered species list in November, and another from the state legislature, which passed a bill March 2 that ratified the Commission’s decision. Gray wolves remain on the federal endangered species list in the western two-thirds of the state, and Harney county District Attorney Tim Colahan points out that the delisting didn’t make it legal to shoot wolves.

That’s because wolves are still protected under a state management plan, says Michelle Dennehy with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency responsible for that plan. She notes that people can kill wolves in some situations, such as chronic livestock depredation. But measures employed by the department to prevent wolves from taking livestock are working, she adds; even though wolf numbers went up last year, depredation went down.

Dennehy says the state’s wolf population in 2015 was at least 110 wolves, a 36 percent increase over the previous year. Department biologists have collared only about 11 percent of the population, or roughly 12 wolves. Yet, in addition to the three collared wolves shot to death, five other collared wolves died in 2015, one from poison and three of unknown causes, including a breeding pair whose death looks suspicious.

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Biologists don’t believe OR 22 had a mate or pups yet. Young wolves often disperse from their pack in order to establish their own territory and find a mate. One of the most famous such dispersals, OR 7, traveled some 1,200 miles across Oregon and into California in 2011, becoming the first wild wolf in that state since 1924.

Oregon wildlife officials confirmed that OR7 turned up with a mate and pups in the southern Cascade Mountains in 2014, although his radio collar failed shortly thereafter and his fate and that of his pups remain unknown.

Maybe OR 7 decided his luck would be better in California.