June 24, 2009

By Joyce Campbell

The federal investigation into an alleged gray wolf poaching by members of a Twisp family is still ongoing.

“Due to the nature of the investigation, I can’t talk about where the focus of the investigation is or what we’re looking at,” said Joan Jewett, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific region office in Portland, Ore. “It’s easy to jeopardize the investigation or the prosecution, if there is one, by saying anything prematurely.”

The poaching investigation began in December 2008 when a gray wolf pelt that was dropped off at an Omak mailing center for shipment to Canada was intercepted by state wildlife agents. DNA testing confirmed that the hide was from a young gray wolf directly related to the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack, according to an Okanogan County District Court document.

Investigators served a search warrant at the homes of Tom and Erin White and Bill and Suellen White on Feb. 25. During questioning, Tom confessed to killing the wolf after finding it caught in a fence, according to the court document. Federal agents seized computer equipment at both homes as evidence.

“Things take awhile. It’s not as simple as the average hunting license case,” said special agent Corky Roberts with the USFWS. Roberts was part of the joint federal and state investigative team that served the search warrant. “It’s a pretty complex matter that takes a number of people to analyze.”

When the investigation is complete, the federal agency will take it to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane. Once there, a determination is made whether to proceed with a grand jury process, according to Tom Rice, first assistant U.S. attorney.

“I can’t give comment at all,” said Rice. He said, hypothetically a case of this type could take months to prosecute. Wildlife crimes do not rise to the level of public safety like bank robberies, and thus receive less priority in the grand jury process.

“It’s a long process,” said Rice. If a grand jury hands down an indictment, a case becomes public. At least 12 of the 23 grand jury members must vote for an indictment.

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.

“We’ve done our piece of the investigation and we’ve had no communication with the feds on where it lies,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ll wait,” he said.