Critics say that an Eastern Washington prosecutor went too easy on the man who killed a protected gray wolf in Whitman County last October. He’ll pay $100 and forfeit his gun and scope for chasing the animal in his car and then shooting it.
Conservationists and state game officials said Tuesday that a prosecutor in Eastern Washington went too easy on a man who chased a protected gray wolf with his car for several miles, then shot and killed the animal.
Jonathan M. Rasmussen killed the wolf in Whitman County last October. Wolves are endangered under Washington state law, and killing them can bring a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. But Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy said this week that if Rasmussen pays $100 and doesn’t commit other fish or game violations for six months, a misdemeanor charge against him will be dismissed.
“We expected more from the prosecutor’s office,” said Capt. Dan Rahn, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police. “This was in a rural area, and the defendant basically chased the animal down with his vehicle, trying to keep up with it and shooting at it in various locations. It wasn’t threatening anything or anybody.”
That said, he added, it was the prosecutor’s call: “It’s ultimately up to the prosecutor to make the decision, and there’s not much we can do about it. We’ll continue to work with them in a positive direction.”
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Wolves were hunted to extinction at the beginning of the last century in Washington, but since the early 2000s, the animals have been returning to the state from Idaho and Canada. The increasing numbers have brought increasing conflicts — and inflamed tensions — with ranchers in the eastern part of the state. Across Eastern Washington, “wildlife conflict” specialists have been working with ranchers to help them protect their livestock, while field biologists capture and fit wolves with radio collars to improve state monitoring efforts.
In an interview Tuesday, Tracy said he tried to dismiss the emotional pleas from each side. He received emails from people as far away as Australia who insisted that Rasmussen should be imprisoned, he said, as well as from others who insisted wolves have no place in Whitman County, which is full of farmland but no wilderness.
“In the end, what I did was set aside the strong feelings and focus on the facts of the case and the law,” he said.
First-offense hunting misdemeanors commonly wind up with similar resolutions around the state, Tracy said, even if the killing of a wolf is unusual.
Rasmussen’s attorney, Roger Sandberg, of Pullman, noted that his client also forfeited his gun and scope, worth a total of $1,200.
As for criticism of the deal, he said, “I’m sure there are people that think it’s too lenient. I’m sure there are people who think it’s too harsh. This is a resolution that is consistent with many other cases that have been resolved.”
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he didn’t think Rasmussen should have received jail time for a first offense, but the $100 penalty was too light. He argued that with the cost of a hunting license and wolf tag, it would have cost Rasmussen more to legally kill a wolf in neighboring Idaho, where hunting the animals is allowed, than to kill one illegally in Washington.
“It sends a terrible signal,” he said. “It says it’s OK to shoot wolves. They’re a state endangered species.”