A FedEx agent's discovery of a bloody package containing a wolf pelt led investigators to search the home and computers of an anti-wolf rancher and his son in Okanogan County.

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An outspoken anti-wolf rancher and his son are the subjects of a state and federal investigation into the suspected poaching of a federally protected wolf in north-central Washington.

Bill White, a Twisp-area rancher, and his son Tom White have been questioned and their homes and computers have been searched in a case triggered when a FedEx agent discovered blood leaking from a package bound for Canada, according to a search warrant filed in Okanogan County District Court by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The package was found to contain a bloody wolf pelt.

Police, in the search-warrant affidavit, say the younger White told them that he killed the wolf.

According to investigators, his father, after initially denying any knowledge of it, said his son had told him about the killing. Photos on the elder White’s computer also showed Tom White posing with a dead large gray wolf, according to the search warrant.

Tom White, reached Friday, declined to discuss the case.

“It’s in my interest not to talk about the case,” he said. “Right now, I’m kind of worried about the safety of my family.”

His father could not be reached for comment.

No arrests have been made, according to both state and federal officials, who also wouldn’t discuss details of the case.

Discovered last year

The poaching, if true, would be the first in Washington since a wolf pack was known to have returned to the state in 2008.

The wolves’ arrival, more than 70 years after they were hunted out of the state, was heralded by environmentalists. They see the animal as a predator key to healthy ecosystems.

“It was so exciting. And just to have the hope of wolf recovery. … That hope definitely took a hit with this news. It’s really sad,” said Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based environmental group.

The wolves’ arrival had triggered complaints from some Eastern Washington residents, particularly ranchers concerned about stricter regulations and losing livestock to wolves.

Bill White was one of the most outspoken.

“Everybody’s not supportive,” he said in a 2008 Associated Press article. “The cattleman’s the only one that’s going to make a sacrifice.”

A federal conviction for poaching a wolf in Washington, where it’s protected under the Endangered Species Act, could result in a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of law enforcement for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. State law also prohibits killing a wolf, with a sentence of as much as a year in jail.

The bloody box

The current case started when a woman brought a box to a shipping store in Omak, containing what she said was a rug, according to an affidavit accompanying a state search warrant filed March 13. (An initial federal search warrant, which is sealed, was filed sometime earlier.) A FedEx agent declined to take the package after seeing what appeared to be blood leaking from it.

When a local police officer and the shipping-store owner discovered an animal pelt inside, they alerted state fish and wildlife agents. Genetic tests of the pelt later confirmed it was a gray wolf and an apparent member of the Washington state wolf pack.

Investigators used security cameras to trace the car and the woman who delivered the package back to the Whites, according to the affidavit.

On Feb. 9, state and federal agents first searched the homes of the two White families, who live near each other in the mountains outside Twisp, according to the affidavit.

Initially, Bill White denied knowing anything about a pelt, according to the affidavit.

“I know what this is all about, we told the Forest Service that they couldn’t come onto our property to look for wolves and this is what happens,” he reportedly said to the agents.

However, Tom White told another agent he had to kill the wolf after finding it caught in a wire fence, and then had his wife try to ship the pelt, according to the affidavit.

After hearing of the admission, police say Bill White told an investigator that he had known of the dead wolf, and had contacted a Canadian acquaintance about whether he could ship a wolf pelt. He had given the Canadian’s address to his son, according to the affidavit.

A photo discovered on Bill White’s computer shows his son hoisting the body of what appears to be a wolf nearly as big as he is. The photo appears to show the wolf with a damaged paw consistent with a kind of trap used to catch animals, according to the affidavit.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com