April 1, 2009

By Joyce Campbell

Federal and state agents are continuing an investigation of three members of a prominent Methow Valley family regarding the death of one of the pups from Washington state’s only wild gray wolf pack.

Tom White, of Twisp, admitted killing a wolf, and reportedly told agents that his wife, Erin, attempted to ship the pelt to Canada, according to a court affidavit filed by state wildlife officials. Tom’s father, Bill White, was also questioned and gave contradictory answers regarding his alleged complicity in the crimes of killing the pup and an adult wolf, attempted smuggling and other illegal hunting activities. No charges had been filed in the case as of Tuesday (March 31).

Agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife served a search warrant at the Twisp homes of Tom and Erin White and Bill and Suellen White on Feb. 25. When questioned by a federal special agent, “Tom White, Bill’s son, had confessed to killing and then having his wife attempt to ship the wolf pelt. He claimed to have found the wolf caught in a fence and had to kill it to get it out of the fence wire,” according to an Okanogan County District Court affidavit filed by Sgt. James Brown, WDFW enforcement officer present during the search.

Investigators seized computer equipment that allegedly contained evidence of wildlife crimes, including photos of Tom White with what may be a second dead wolf and e-mail messages relating to illegal pursuit hunting of bobcat and cougar with dogs.

The Whites raise cattle and manage timber on their 600-plus-acre ranch bordering the Twisp city limits on Lookout Mountain Road. The family operates a logging business and septic pumping service. Bill White is a volunteer hunter education instructor and his wife, Suellen, formerly served as superintendent of the Methow Valley School District. The WDFW has sent a letter notifying Bill that his instructor certification has been temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, said Madonna Luers, WDFW spokesperson.

The Lookout Pack, Washington’s first confirmed wild wolf pack since the 1930s, frequents the area adjacent to the Whites’ ranch, along with state and federal wildlife biologists who radio-collared a pair of wolves in July 2008 and track the pack by radio telemetry.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” said Bill White on Monday (March 30). On the advice of his attorney, he was reluctant to talk to the Methow Valley News. “It’s a painful deal, but when they have a hearing, it will all come out.

“I know, but I can’t say, if the wolves were bothering our animals. It’s not going to be like they’re saying,” said White. “It will all come out in the wash. It’s unfortunate that people make judgments, but this country has a pretty good legal system and I trust it will work.”

The taking of a gray wolf is a federal and state crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and fines up to $100,000. Smuggling under federal law carries penalties of fines and up to 10 years imprisonment.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will call the shots and be sensitive to not jeopardize the integrity of the case,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement for the WDFW in Olympia. He said state and federal officers jointly served the federal warrant and the investigation is not concluded. “More investigation needs to be done.”

“The investigation is ongoing and I can’t talk about it,” said USFWS spokesman Tom Buckley. He said the information was still sealed at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane and not open to the public.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane would neither confirm nor deny the investigation. Generally, when a felony investigation is concluded, an agency may refer it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a grand jury hearing, said Tom Rice, first assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane. The grand jury meets every couple of weeks, and the proceedings are sealed to keep people from being influenced, he said. If the grand jury delivers an indictment, which requires at least 12 of 23 votes, the public process would begin with charges filed in court, an arrest, an arraignment and jury trial.

The investigation began on Dec. 23, 2008, when an Omak police officer and a state wildlife agent responded to a complaint from the owner of an Omak FedEx shipping outlet that a package was leaking what appeared to be blood. WDFW enforcement officer Brent Scherzinger examined the package contents and “determined it was probably a freshly killed wolf hide,” according to the court document. The shipping label was addressed to an Alberta, Canada, residence. The shipper had declared the item was a rug. Scherzinger seized the pelt and packaging as evidence.

WDFW agents called USFWS special agent Charles “Corky” Roberts the next day, and Roberts determined that the hide was from a young gray wolf, a federally-listed endangered species. Further DNA testing from a USFWS forensics lab in Oroville preliminarily confirmed that tissue samples were from a gray wolf directly related to the local Lookout Pack, according to the court document.

Roberts traced the shipper using surveillance video from the Wal-Mart parking lot of a young woman matching the description supplied by the FedEx clerk. The investigation led agents to suspect that Erin White, Tom White’s wife, had tried to ship the wolf pelt. The package was addressed to Ralph Brausen, of Hardisty, Alberta, who was later determined to be a hunting acquaintance of Bill White. At that point, Canadian authorities were assisting with the investigation with the cooperation of Brausen.

Upon obtaining two federal search warrants, agents met on Feb. 24 to make a plan to search for evidence regarding the possession and attempted smuggling of the endangered gray wolf pelt.

Agents served the two warrants simultaneously at the two residences the next morning and questioned the Whites. Based on Tom White’s admission to killing the wolf and Bill White’s admission that “I lied to you guys,” when questioned about knowledge of the pelt and phone conversations with Brausen, agents seized computers at both houses.

The state is looking at other evidence that may relate to the possible crimes of unlawful hunting of endangered species, illegal use of body-gripping traps and unlawful hunting of bobcat and/or cougar with the use of dogs. In the court’s affidavit, Sgt. Brown recounts evidence obtained from Bill White’s computer, including what Brown described as an obviously dead adult wolf in two photos, both showing a left front paw severely injured in a way consistent with a trap injury. Brown wrote, “In the background the ground is heavily torn up consistent with my experience of a trapped animal trying to get free and tearing up the ground and vegetation within its reach while in a body-gripping trap.” Washington voters approved an initiative in 2000 that prohibits the use of body-gripping traps except by special permit.

The latest monitoring data on the Lookout Pack placed the two radio-collared wolves moving around in the Lookout Mountain area, according to John Rohrer, Forest Service wildlife biologist and acting ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

“For sure, the radio-collared wolves are alive,” said Rohrer. Wildlife monitoring staff had a visual on three wolves two weeks ago and have more recently tracked four or five wolves over eight miles of terrain for two days. The pack was known to have three adults and six pups in July 2008. “There have been other observations and it could be that individuals have split off from the pack,” said Rohrer.