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Bill White pleads guilty to state, federal charges in wolf-killing case

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By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News

“Mr. White showed blatant, deliberate and repeated disregard for both game and endangered wildlife and the laws that protect them,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. “Yet under this deal he escapes spending a single night in jail. This weak deal sends the wrong message to other potential poachers that the courts don’t take wildlife abuse seriously. Looking at the example of Bill White, I’m wondering what a poacher would have to do to get to jail.”

Twisp rancher William White, in agreeing to admit guilt on wolf poaching and other wildlife violations in federal court, is expected to be placed on three years of probation and pay penalties of $38,500. He will also lose the right to ever own a gun again.

“Because he’s pled guilty to a felony conviction … he will not be able to own firearms,” said Joseph Harrington, first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.

White entered an agreement with federal prosecutors April 4, pleading guilty to three criminal counts related to killing endangered wolves and illegally transporting wildlife across the United States border. A sentencing hearing is set for July 11.

As part of the federal plea, White also agreed to plead guilty to two state wildlife violations – hunting bears with dogs and hunting a trophy deer out of season.

White, his son Tom, and Tom’s wife, Erin, pleaded innocent last June to federal endangered species and wildlife crimes outlined in a 12-count grand jury indictment that included killing at least two, and as many as five, endangered gray wolves and conspiring to smuggle a wolf pelt to Canada.

Tom and Erin White are scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Tuesday (April 17) in U.S. District Court, according to court records. Tom White was charged with six counts, including taking an endangered species. Erin White was charged with four counts in connection with the attempt to ship the wolf pelt to Canada.

The charges resulted from an investigation that began in December 2008, when a package that had been left with FedEx in Omak and addressed to a Canadian resident was discovered to be leaking blood. When opened by law enforcement officers, the package was found to contain a fresh wolf hide.

Investigators eventually searched White’s residence and computer, which “revealed that he was involved in a conspiracy to kill wolves and to export a wolf hide to Canada,” according to Michael C. Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington.
Evidence also revealed that White had illegally killed a moose and deer in Alberta, Canada, and illegally imported that wildlife into the United States.

In federal court last week, White, 62, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to take endangered species, one count of conspiracy to export endangered species, and one count of unlawful importation of wildlife. The first two counts each carry a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison, and the third count caries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison.

In addition to serving three years of probation and paying $38,500 in criminal fines, restitution and other penalties, White agreed to forfeit firearms and other items related to the violations.

The grand jury indictment charged White with nine counts of wildlife violations; the plea agreement addresses three of them. “We wanted to make him accountable for his conduct (related to) what we thought were the most serious offenses,” said Harrington.

The plea agreement related to the state bear hunting charges would call for White to lose hunting privileges for five years, said David Gecas, deputy Okanogan County prosecuting attorney.

Gecas said he considered the penalties set out in the federal and state plea agreement “appropriate.” He said the plea agreement on the state charges would likely be entered after the July sentencing hearing on the federal charges.

The White family raises cattle and timber on a 600-acre ranch near Lookout Mountain, bordering forested land where a gray wolf pack, the first confirmed in Washington in 70 years, was discovered in the summer of 2008. Wildlife officials believe illegal poaching decimated the pack, which had as many as 10 animals in July 2008 (see accompanying story).

Scott Fitkin, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who has monitored the wolf pack over the past three years, said he welcomed the news of White’s plea agreement. “I think it is a fairly significant penalty and glad to see it was viewed as a serious series of offenses,” Fitkin said.

Asked if he thought it sent a message to people who might consider illegally killing endangered species, Fitkin said, “I certainly think it would give them pause.”

However, Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit wildlife conservation group that helped document the Lookout Pack, said it was disappointed with the deal that White and prosecutors worked out.

“Mr. White showed blatant, deliberate and repeated disregard for both game and endangered wildlife and the laws that protect them,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. “Yet under this deal he escapes spending a single night in jail. This weak deal sends the wrong message to other potential poachers that the courts don’t take wildlife abuse seriously. Looking at the example of Bill White, I’m wondering what a poacher would have to do to get to jail.”

Friedman said that statements by White’s lawyer that his client was defending his livestock is contrary to the record of the case. “There is no evidence that the White’s few cattle were harmed by the wolves (not to mention bear, deer and moose that White also poached), or that White attempted any other remedy besides destroying the state’s first wolf pack.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the investigation of the wildlife violations case involved many agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Alberta (Canada) Fish and Wildlife Division, and the Omak Police Department.

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