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Twisp residents indicted for poaching wolves, smuggling

By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News

Reporter Ann McCreary reports in-depth. Biologists hold that even if the Lookout pack dies out because of the illegal killings, the territory they inhabited may attract new wolves. Conservation Northwest's Mitch Friedman is quoted, "...a poaching like this is a blow to us all."

William, Tom and Erin White of Twisp are scheduled to be arraigned June 29 in U.S. District Court in Spokane on a dozen charges, including killing endangered gray wolves and conspiring to smuggle a wolf pelt out of the country.

In a grand jury indictment issued last week, William – known as Bill – and Tom White were charged with killing two wolves, and the indictment states they may have killed as many as five wolves. Tom White’s wife Erin is charged with conspiracy in connection with attempting to smuggle a pelt from one of the wolves to Canada.

The three are scheduled for arraignment at 1:30 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno. Following arraignment, a trial before a U.S. District Court judge will be scheduled within 70 days, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice.

The 12-count indictment culminates an investigation that began in December 2008, following a botched attempt to smuggle a wolf pelt, which was discovered when blood began leaking from a package delivered to FedEx in Omak. The FedEx shipping agent called police, and wildlife enforcement officers who examined the package contents determined it was a freshly killed wolf hide, according to court documents filed in 2009. A parking lot surveillance video was used to identify Erin White as the person who brought in the package and led investigators to the homes of Bill and Tom White, where they seized computers and other evidence.

The Whites raise cattle and manage timber on a 600-acre ranch near Lookout Mountain, bordering forested land where a gray wolf pack was discovered in the summer of 2008. The White family also operates a logging business and a septic pumping service. Bill White had been a volunteer hunter education instructor and his wife, Suellen, was former superintendent of the Methow Valley School District.

The indictment in the case was welcomed by Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based conservation organization that has helped monitor the Lookout Mountain wolf pack. “We in Washington do so much to protect our wildlife and wild places that senseless acts of poaching like this are a blow to us all,” said Mitch Friedman, director of Conservation Northwest. “Poachers like this who deliberately try to wipe out a population of endangered wildlife need to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

In the 10-page federal indictment, Bill White is charged with nine counts, including conspiracy to take an endangered species. Under the conspiracy charge, the indictment states that in December 2007 (before wildlife officials confirmed the existence of the Lookout pack) Bill White sent an e-mail to a relative in Alaska asking for help locating someone who knew how to snare wolves.

The indictment states that in January 2008 Bill White said in e-mail correspondence that he and others were hunting three wolves near his residence in Twisp; in April and May 2008 White told people that he was attempting to trap or kill wolves near his residence; in January 2009 he said in e-mail that he and others “shot several wolves, specifically two wolves in one group of nine and one wolf in another group of three;” also in January 2009 he “applied a pesticide… in order to unlawfully take and kill wildlife, including gray wolves.”

Bill White is also charged with conspiracy to smuggle goods out of the country and attempted export of an endangered species. The indictment states that Bill White arranged to send a “really big coyote (meaning a wolf) for tanning” to Canada. The package, leaking blood from the pelt, was intercepted at the FedEx office and subsequently led investigators to serve a search warrant in February 2009 on the homes of Bill and Tom White.

In addition to smuggling charges, Bill White is also charged with illegally importing a moose and a deer into the United States from Canada, knowing they had been illegally killed there.

He is also charged with making false statements to investigators about what he knew about the taking of wolves or the attempted shipment of the pelt to Canada.

Maximum cumulative penalties for the nine counts against Bill White amount to 46 years in prison and $1.45 million in fines.

Tom White faces six charges, including one count of conspiracy to take an endangered species and two counts of unlawful taking of an endangered species. The indictment states that Tom White killed a gray wolf on May 13, 2008, and killed another gray wolf on Dec. 15, 2008, both near his Twisp residence.

Investigators in the case said Tom White admitted that he killed a wolf, claiming to have found it caught in a fence. Tom White is also charged with smuggling in connection with the attempted pelt shipment. He skinned the wolf he shot on Dec. 15 and, along with his wife and father, attempted to ship the hide to Canada to be tanned, the indictment states. The maximum cumulative penalties for charges against Tom White are 18 years in prison and $900,000 in fines.

Erin White is charged with four counts in connection with the attempted pelt smuggling. The indictment states that on Dec. 22, 2008 she used a false name to attempt to ship the hide and submitted false information about the package contents, which she described as a rug. Maximum cumulative penalties for charges against Erin White are 21 years in prison and $850,000 in fines.

Tom and Erin White have three children, all of elementary-school age.

In addition to the federal charges related to the wolf killings and smuggling, Bill and Tom White also face state charges on a variety of wildlife violations, which were uncovered during the investigation that began two and a half years ago. The Whites are scheduled to appear in Okanogan County District Court on June 28, the day before their scheduled federal arraignment, on a motion by the defendants to suppress evidence, said David Gecas, deputy prosecuting attorney for the Okanogan County Prosecutors Office.

State charges against both Bill and Tom White include hunting black bears out of season and illegal use of dogs to hunt black bears. Bill White is also charged with hunting black bears without a tag, hunting mule deer out of season, unlawfully transporting wildlife, providing false information and possessing a loaded firearm in a vehicle.

The Whites could not be reached for comment.

“I’m just glad to see there’s going to be resolution to this issue one way or another,” said wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin after the grand jury handed down the indictment last week. Fitkin works for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and has been part of an interagency team monitoring the Lookout Mountain wolf pack.

“This [indictment] brings the issue back up to the forefront. It’s going to resurrect what tends to be kind of an emotional issue,” Fitkin said.

The Lookout Mountain pack, the first pack of gray wolves confirmed in Washington state in 70 years, had as many as 10 animals in July 2008. Wildlife officials believe illegal poaching has decimated the pack, leaving only two survivors. Gray wolves in the Methow Valley are protected as an endangered species under both federal and state law.

Fitkin said the fate of several wolves that were present in spring last year but are now missing, including the pack’s alpha female, is still unknown. “We were monitoring six wolves last spring [in 2010],” Fitkin said. Now it appears that the only survivors are the alpha male and one of the pups from a litter born in 2009, he said. It’s unclear whether the younger wolf is male or female, and whether the wolves could breed and continue the pack.

Even if this pack dies out, the territory they inhabited may attract new wolves, Fitkin said. “The territory they covered, the 300 square miles, will often be used again by dispersing wolves. Wolves travel up to 600 miles and there are reports of wolves, that haven’t been confirmed, that are way closer than that,” Fitkin said. One of the surviving Lookout pack wolves could travel far enough to find a mate and could potentially return to the area, he said.

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