A 42-year-old unemployed carpenter from Red Lodge was charged Tuesday with killing a gray wolf that was released in Yellowstone National Park earlier this year.
U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci said Chad McKittrick has been summoned to appear in U.S. District Court on Thursday to answer misdemeanor charges of killing an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Affidavits filed in support of the charge said a hunting buddy who was with McKittrick contacted federal agents. After being confronted by agents, Matteucci said, McKittrick admitted killing the animal, and agents found the head and hide of the wolf at his house.
Matteucci said McKittrick could face up to one year in prison and a $50,000 fine on the misdemeanor charges. She said investigators still are investigating whether felony charges could be supported. That would raise the penalty to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine. “This is a very serious crime as well as a tragic chapter in the history of wolves in Montana,” she said. “I want the message to be clearly sent: You mess with these animals and you will pay a substantial price.”
The dead wolf was the dominant male in one of the three packs of wolves released in Yellowstone in January. The wolf reintroduction program is one of the most visible - and controversial - ever undertaken by the federal government, and millions of dollars was riding on the hopes that the three packs would settle in the park and begin to repopulate it with a major predator.
After release of the wolves in late March, however, the animals wandered. One pack, called the Rose Creek pack, eventually ended up near Red Lodge, northeast of Yellowstone. There, the dominant male disappeared.
On April 27, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents found its radio tracking collar in a metal culvert east of Red Lodge. It had been dismantled. On May 7, a horn-hunter found the skinned carcass of the wolf, its head missing.