Wildlife Disservice

Someone is shooting endangered Mexican gray wolves. The government's flawed reintroduction program helped put them in the crosshairs.

Wolf reintroduction team personnel used fireworks to scare the wolves away.
The Turkey Creek wolves' next encounter with humans did not end well.
According to FWS, Tucson camper Richard Humphrey heard "thrashing and yipping" in the brush about 50 yards west of his campsite on the morning of April 28. The camp was located within one mile of the wolves' release site, but by then the closure had been lifted.

Humphrey determined wolves were fighting with one of his two dogs. When Humphrey went to investigate, the female wolf fled. But the male started moving toward the campsite, prompting the camper to shoot it from about 50 feet, FWS spokesman Hans Stuart says.

The wolf would have bled to death from the first shot, Stuart says, but the camper then got close to the wolf and shot it again "to put it out of its misery."

FWS cleared Humphrey of wrongdoing. Under the Endangered Species Act, a wolf may be killed only if it endangers human life. Ranchers are also allowed to kill a wolf if it attacks cattle on private property, but not on public land. Prosecution could bring a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Wolf-advocacy groups howled over the FWS decision to clear Humphrey.
"It's a travesty," says wolf researcher Tom Beno.
Wolf advocates say a necropsy showed the wolf was standing still and turned away from Humphrey--not attacking--at the time it was shot. The first bullet fired by Humphrey with a scoped .243-caliber rifle pierced both of the wolf's hind legs just above the knees.

"The wolf would have to be standing with both feet together directly broadside to the shooter to obtain this alignment of the wounds," says Richard Stroud, veterinary medical examiner for the federal government's National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

In the wake of the shooting, Humphrey became something of a folk hero on the anti-wolf circuit. He was featured as the keynote speaker in a Catron County anti-environmental rally on August 8.

In a July 29 letter to Interior Secretary Babbitt, a coalition of environmental groups said Humphrey should be prosecuted, and warned that failure to do so would encourage others to harm wolves.

There were other harbingers that more wolves would soon be shot. But FWS criminal investigators apparently ignored one alarming tip.

In May, a Santa Fe wolf advocate, the aptly named Patricia Wolff, taped a telephone conversation she claims to have had with federal prison inmate Jody Lee "Chance" Cooper. On Wolff's tape, a man she says is Cooper claims he was offered a bounty to kill the wolves.

Cooper has since denied making the statements, but the tape, which can be heard on the Internet, sounds authentic--the man provided details only Cooper likely would have known. (See accompanying transcript.)

"They offered me $35,000 in cash to kill 'em all," the man says.
On the tape, the man says the bounty was offered by a Glenwood, New Mexico, rancher whom he refused to identify. The man says he rejected the offer because it wasn't enough money, and because he wanted the wolves to survive.

But the man suggests that he could kill wolves if he wanted to, saying he'd been "the predator's predator for a long time."

Wolff says she told FWS investigators about her conversation in May but that no one listened to the tape. After three wolves were shot between August 7 and November 7, Wolff contacted FWS agents again on November 9.

"I ranted and raved about why they weren't more aggressively going after the people killing the wolves," she says. "Then an agent came to the house and listened to the tape."

Wolff, who assures the man on the tape that she is not taping their conversation, says she believes Cooper should be held in prison until he reveals who posted the bounty to kill the wolves.

"There is someone in prison who has information about a federal crime to kill endangered species," Wolff says. "They should make him give the name, or keep him in jail."

Wolff will not get her wish; Cooper was released on December 11.
Federal wildlife criminal investigator Steve Middleton declined to comment on Wolff's tape other than to say Cooper is not a suspect in the shootings.

While Cooper couldn't have shot the wolves since he was in prison, he appears to be a likely candidate to have been recruited to hunt wolves.

The six-foot-five, 36-year-old Cooper describes himself as a "hunter cowboy." He has drifted around Arizona for several years, living mostly near Alpine and Safford. According to federal court documents, he has used five aliases, four dates of birth and three social security numbers.

State Game and Fish Department records say he is well-known to law enforcement agencies in the Southwest for hunting and firearms violations and is described as "spooky" by a state Department of Public Safety officer. His criminal record dates back to at least 1985, when he was convicted in Nevada for grand larceny of animals.

In September 1994, as a Game and Fish officer investigating a bear kill questioned Cooper in Springerville, Cooper allegedly asked the officer whether his bulletproof vest could stop a .458-caliber rifle bullet--which was the type of rifle Cooper had, Arizona Game and Fish records state.

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