Updated 9/15/15 at 5:30 p.m. with AP coverage at end of post -- "Wildlife officers disappointed in fine" -- and confirmation of firearm forfeiture.
ENDANGERED SPECIES -- A Palouse farmer who chased down and killed a wolf in a crop field on Oct. 12, 2014, has been given what wolf advocates are calling a sweet deal by Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy.
According to the Capital Press, Jonathan Rasmussen, 38, has been charged with killing a state endangered species, a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The farmer won’t face criminal prosecution for shooting a gray wolf if he pays $100 and commits no further game violations for the next six months,Tracy, announced today.
The rifle used to kill the wolf -- a Remington Model 700 in .300 Weatherby equipped with a Leupold scope -- was seized by Washington Fish and Wildlife officers at the time of the incident. Rasmussen's lawyer said the firearm worth a total of $1,200 has been forfeited.
“We expected more from the prosecutor’s office,” Capt. Dan Rahn, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police, told the Associated Press. “This was in a rural area, and the defendant basically chased the animal down with his vehicle, trying to keep up with it and shooting at it in various locations. It wasn’t threatening anything or anybody.”
“I recognize that the shooting of a wolf generates strong emotions in some people, and depending on the person, those emotions run either in support of such as act or opposed to such an act,” Tracy said in a written statement.
State Fish and Wildlife police turned the evidence in the case over to the county prosecutor on Nov. 19. The original WDFW report said the man, with his wife in the vehicle, chased the wolf in a vehicle and shot it in a farm field about 15 miles southwest of Pullman. Rasmussen called 911 to relay a report to wildlife officials that he had killed wolf.
Tracy said he's heard from wolf advocates urging stiff prosecution while others in the public backed Rasmussen for protecting public safety as well as his animals.
However, Fish and Wildlife police said the wolf had not been reported as threatening people, pets or livestock. The case report released to reporters said: “He at no point indicated that he thought he or his family was in imminent danger or that the animals at the horse barn were in immediate danger of being attacked. (He) stated that he thought if the wolf was allowed to live it would kill animals in the future.”
In an interview with the Capital Press, Tracy said the public interest and public passion in the case didn’t influence his decision, but it was one reason the case took 11 months to resolve.
“Their impact was to cause me to be very careful,” he told the reporter. “I thought about this case and how to resolve it for quite sometime.”
Tracy said he concluded that giving Rasmussen the option of paying what Tracy estimated were the administrative costs for handing the case was justified for several reasons, but that it was not a case of yielding to local sentiment.
Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest said the case proves that gray wolf recovery in Washington is not ready to be put in the hands of local governments.
“The prosecutor seemed to base his decision on a perception that the defense could argue that this wolf, the first seen in Whitman County in almost a century, was a public danger solely on the basis of it having existed," Friedman told Northwest Sportsman. "Mr. Tracy therefore is now the poster child for the case for retaining federal listing. ”
Here's a followup story from Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson, with reaction to the deal from Washington Fish and Wildlife police.
State game officials disappointed with deal in wolf killing
SEATTLE (AP) — Conservationists and state game officials said Tuesday that a prosecutor in Eastern Washington went too easy on a man who chased a protected gray wolf with his car for several miles, then shot and killed the animal.
Jonathan M. Rasmussen killed the wolf in Whitman County last October. Wolves are endangered under Washington state law, and killing them can bring a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. But Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy said this week that if Rasmussen pays $100 and doesn’t commit other fish or game violations for six months, a misdemeanor charge against him will be dismissed.
“We expected more from the prosecutor’s office,” said Capt. Dan Rahn, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police. “This was in a rural area, and the defendant basically chased the animal down with his vehicle, trying to keep up with it and shooting at it in various locations. It wasn’t threatening anything or anybody.”
That said, he added, it was the prosecutor’s call: “It’s ultimately up to the prosecutor to make the decision, and there’s not much we can do about it. We’ll continue to work with them in a positive direction.”
Wolves were hunted to extinction at the beginning of the last century in Washington, but since the early 2000s, the animals have been returning to the state from Idaho and Canada. The increasing numbers have brought increasing conflicts — and inflamed tensions — with ranchers in the eastern part of the state. Across Eastern Washington, “wildlife conflict” specialists have been working with ranchers to help them protect their livestock, while field biologists capture and fit wolves with radio-collars to improve state monitoring efforts.
In an interview Tuesday, Tracy said he tried to dismiss the emotional pleas from each side. He received emails from people as far away from Australia who insisted that Rasmussen should be imprisoned, he said, as well as from others who insisted wolves have no place in Whitman County, which is full of farmland but no wilderness.
“In the end, what I did was set aside the strong feelings and focus on the facts of the case and the law,” he said.
First-offense hunting misdemeanors commonly wind up with similar resolutions around the state, Tracy said, even if the killing of a wolf is unusual.
Rasmussen’s attorney, Roger Sandberg of Pullman, noted that his client also forfeited his gun and scope, worth a total of $1,200.
As for criticism of the deal, he said, “I’m sure there are people that think it’s too lenient. I’m sure there are people who think it’s too harsh. This is a resolution that is consistent with many other cases that have been resolved.”
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he didn’t think Rasmussen should have received jail time for a first offense, but the $100 penalty was too light. He argued that with the cost of a hunting license and wolf tag, it would have cost Rasmussen more to legally kill a wolf in neighboring Idaho, where hunting the animals is allowed, than to kill one illegally in Washington.
“It sends a terrible signal,” he said. “It says it’s OK to shoot wolves. They’re a state endangered species.”