State officials banned Ronald Wentz from hunting in Washington for two years, but staff reductions mean many poachers are never caught.

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The Redmond man who sparked outrage by killing a cougar in a research trap will be barred from hunting in Washington for two years.

Ronald D. Wentz was previously fined $1,300 for the 2016 incident, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) didn’t strip him of his hunting privileges until prodded by an animal-welfare organization.

“It seemed like such an egregious situation for him to have received such a mild penalty for such a heinous crime,’ said Dan Paul, Washington director of The Humane Society of the United States.

After reading about the incident, first reported in February by The Seattle Times, Paul wrote WDFW Director Jim Unsworth and urged the state to permanently ban Wentz from hunting again in the state.

“ … we believe further action is necessary so that he may no longer have the opportunity to engage in cruel poaching behavior in the future,” Paul wrote.

The state agreed that “Mr. Wentz’s actions demonstrated a “willful or wanton disregard”for wildlife” — which Paul pointed out is legal grounds for permanently suspending a violator’s hunting rights. But WDFW officials opted for a two-year ban because Wentz had a valid hunting license and cougar tag.

Wentz, 54, declined to comment on the case and did not appeal the hunting ban.

Yanking a license is rare in Washington. Of 7,620 citations issued in 2016 for fishing or hunting violations, 108 led to suspensions.

Most of those cases involved infractions that automatically trigger suspensions, said WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci. For example, hunting big game out of season or without a license requires a two-year suspension, as does racking up three hunting- or fishing-rule violations of any type during a 10-year period.

Cenci said the agency has only invoked the “willful or wanton disregard” standard three other times since 2014, and some field officers may not even be aware of it.

“There are probably circumstances where it could be leveraged more often than it has been,” he said. “We don’t have the staff to ride herd on every case,” he added, pointing out that the number of wildlife-enforcement officers has dropped over the past two decades, while the state’s population has increased by more than a third.

Undetected crimes

Wentz’s cougar-killing drew widespread condemnation from commenters on The Seattle Times and online discussion groups.

Wentz and a companion were hunting in February 2016 on a large tract of private timberland in the Cascade foothills northwest of Mount Si when they spotted the cougar in a research cage camouflaged with branches and bush.

The young male, which had previously been fitted with a GPS collar, was trapped as part of an ongoing WDFW study of interactions between cougars and their human neighbors in towns like Duvall, Fall City and North Bend. Researchers had been tracking the animal since it was a cub.

When biologist Brian Kerston checked the trap later that day, he found the door sprung open and a “big pool of blood” inside.

Meanwhile, Wentz and his friend had tagged the cougar and reported it to wildlife agents as a legitimate kill. The two men delivered the big cat to a taxidermy shop and were waiting outside when wildlife agents caught up to them and quizzed them about the empty trap.

Both men initially claimed the animal was not in the trap when it was shot. But under questioning, Wentz eventually admitted it was, according to the incident report.

King County prosecutors opted not to charge Wentz’s companion and dropped two of the three citations issued to Wentz — including the charge of unlawful big-game hunting, which would have brought an automatic, two-year suspension.

Wentz pleaded guilty to the gross misdemeanor of interfering with fishing or hunting gear. In addition to the fine, he was sentenced to probation and two days on a community work crew.

WDFW emails, obtained through a public records request, show wildlife officials were frustrated that Wentz’s hunting partner was not charged. “Unreal. I can’t believe this guy gets to walk,” Kerston wrote.

But a King County prosecuting attorney explained in attached documents that regulations make it hard to establish a companion’s culpability.

Capt. Alan Myers of WDFW’s North Puget Sound Region said the cougar-killing case is unusual only in the amount of media attention it drew.

“We see egregious cases like that all the time,” he said. For prosecutors who are already overwhelmed with crimes against people, wildlife crimes are sometimes a lower priority, Myers said.

“We get disappointed every day,” he said. “It’s like trying to punch the wind.”

And then there are all the poaching incidents and other wildlife crimes that go undetected because WDFW’s enforcement staff is spread so thin. In 1993, 134 field officers were tasked with policing the state’s population of nearly 5.3 million — an average of 2.5 officers per 100,000 residents.

In 2016, WDFW’s enforcement staff was down to 118 field officers, due to budget cuts. With the state’s population now approaching 7.3 million, that means coverage has fallen to 1.6 officers per 100,000 residents.

The number of people who hunt and fish has also dropped. In 1993, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data show more than 1.1 million paid license holders in the state, compared to about 876,000 in 2016.

A 2008 analysis by the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended that WDFW’s enforcement staff be nearly doubled, to 261.

“Whatever happened with that?” Cenci asked. “Absolutely nothing.”