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Poached past the brink?

By K.C. Mehaffey
Wenatchee World

This article on the North Cascade's Lookout pack written by KC Mehaffey of the Wenatchee World was picked up by the Seattle Times, Seattle PI, Kennewick Tri-City Herald, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald, The Kitsap Sun, The Everett Herald, The Tacoma News Tribune, and The Oregonian.

TWISP — The time it took to investigate a Twisp family in a wolf poaching case may have led to more poaching and the eventual the end of the state’s first confirmed pack in 70 years, a conservation group says.

When federal authorities began investigating Twisp ranchers Bill White, his son Tom, and his daughter-in-law Erin in March 2009, the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack included an estimated 10 wolves.

A Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks photo shows a gray wolf like the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack.

By last week, when the Whites were indicted by a federal grand jury on numerous charges, the pack had dwindled to just two animals, the alpha male and a young adult.

“How many of those wolves were killed in that two-year period? Was the poaching continuing?” asked Jasmine Minbashian, special projects director for Conservation Northwest. “Whatever caused the delay — and I don’t know what did — could have been the death knell for the Lookout Pack.” She said swift action would have sent a message to the anti-wolf community that wolf poaching is not tolerated.

Joan Jewett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said she understands that some people feel it took longer than it should have to convene a grand jury.

“I don’t know exactly when we gave it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, nor can I give you any examples of what they looked at that might have slowed it down,” she said. “Suffice it to say we always do as thorough an investigation as possible, and sometimes that takes time. We want to make sure our investigation is as solid as it can be.”

News that some members of the state’s first documented wolf pack in 70 years had been poached came out in March 2009, after state and federal wildlife officers searched both of the Whites’ homes looking for evidence to connect them to a bloody wolf pelt shipped from Omak to Canada in December 2008.

Authorities seized computers that included photos of a Tom White with a large dead wolf, apparently different from the wolf pelt mailed in December.

A year later, Okanogan County prosecutors used information from the search and a follow-up investigation to file charges against Tom and Bill White alleging second-degree unlawful hunting of big game, and taking or hunting black bear with the use of hounds or bait.

It took federal prosecutors an additional year and three months to convene a grand jury for federal charges. The Whites did not respond to phone messages for comment.

Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said she hasn’t heard any concerns from state Fish and Wildlife employees about the delay in charging. “Our guys know that even at the state level, which is slightly less complicated, it takes time to put together a solid case that isn’t going to blow apart,” she said.

She added that it would be conjecture to assume that filing charges against the Whites would have deterred additional wolf poaching.

She said it is significant that the Lookout Pack is no longer considered a breeding pair, because the state’s recovery plan calls for specific numbers of breeding pairs for three consecutive years for removing protections. “With poaching, all that does is delay getting to the delisting of those animals,” she said.

The Lookout Pack is still considered a pack because there are two animals traveling together, she said.

Luers said biologists believe both members of the pack are male, so the pack no longer contains a breeding pair.

Biologists don’t know how many of the eight wolves that are no longer with the pack were poached. In the last two years, the alpha female turned up missing, and biologists believe she was killed and her collar destroyed, otherwise the collar would have sent off a specific signal indicating she wasn’t moving. The state is also investigating a wolf that was shot, skinned, and dumped east of Rainy Pass, on the North Cascades Highway, but didn’t know if the adult male was from the Lookout Pack.

The two-animal pack is the only documented wolf pack in the Pacific Northwest region, an area where wolves are under a status review which includes the western two-thirds of Washington and Oregon and parts of California and Nevada.

Minbashian said there have been sightings of other wolves in the region, but no other documented packs in the entire area. The wolf remains endangered in the Pacific Northwest region, but is no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes the eastern third of Washington, where other wolf packs are confirmed.

Although disappointed in the time it took to file charges, Minbashian said she was impressed that the investigation appeared very thorough. “They uncovered a lot of information,” she said.

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