Feds probed airborne wolf, coyote gunners in Wyoming, didn’t prosecute
A lone coyote (Canis latrans) standing in sagebrush on a ridge somewhere in Wyoming. (John Mosesso, USGS)
The tip came in by phone. The allegation: widespread disregard for the federal law prohibiting airborne hunting by civilians. The alleged perpetrators included members of three Wyoming county predator boards, their professional contractors and others who could best be described as thrill seekers.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Steve Stoinski was on the other end of the line on Dec. 2, 2019. His confidential informant, “SI-1,” told him that contracted pilots for predator management districts in Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta counties were violating the Airborne Hunting Act by flying their gunners over federal land in southwest Wyoming and killing every coyote, wolf, bobcat and mountain lion they saw, without the requisite permits. The informant, who provided the nuanced details of an insider, claimed predator board members and their families were partaking in the aerial gunning, describing the activity as some kind of recreational pursuit.
“Everybody wants to shoot a wolf from a helicopter!” SI-1 told Stoinski, according to documents from a federal law enforcement investigation report.
Stoinski, who has since retired, declined an interview for this story. But the day after SI-1’s call, he corroborated the claims with the account of a second confidential source, SI-2, according to documents that WyoFile acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request. SI-2 told the federal special agent that the county predator boards had terminated aerial gunning contracts with Wildlife Services — the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s predator control division — because the agency wouldn’t shoot wolves or coyotes unless it could demonstrate the canines had been killing livestock. Instead, SI-2 said, directors of the county boards who are elected by local cattlemen and woolgrowers were using their state funds to hire private contractors, who “will shoot every predator they see regardless of circumstances.”
The second informant echoed allegations that predator board members themselves were getting in on the aerial shooting because it was “a lot of fun.
“SI-2 said he knew for a fact that members of the Lincoln County Predator Board including the president, [redacted], has been in the helicopter to shoot animals on Forest Service land,” the investigation documents read.
Members of that board president’s family, the tipster said, had done the same.
In the year that followed, Stoinski, Bureau of Land Management agent Tom Hill and U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Lathan Sidebottom led a sprawling investigation of purported Airborne Hunting Act violations in Wyoming. The federal team also sought investigative assistance from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The state agency declined to participate because the case involved wolves and coyotes — predator species that fall outside its jurisdiction and, with the exception of wolves inside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, enjoy no protections under state law.
A coyote with feathers in its mouth prowls along the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park in this 2013 image. In southwestern Wyoming, coyotes are classified as predators that can be killed at any time, and the canines are hunted from the air by the hundreds. (National Park Service/Courtesy)
Eventually, the federal probe made major waves. Woolgrowers contend it disrupted business-as-usual aerial predator control on federal grazing allotments during lambing, and that coyotes took advantage.
The investigation also attracted the attention of Wyoming lawmakers. The Legislature will soon consider a bill that clears a path for county boards to incorporate their plans into those of Wildlife Services, thus addressing federal agencies’ concerns related to permitting for airborne hunting.
Wildlife Services beat lawmakers to the punch, this month agreeing to include county predator control boards’ plans on Bureau of Land Management property into its own predator damage management plan that gets filed with the BLM.
Ultimately, Stoinski and his federal counterparts’ probe fell flat, resulting in no charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobsen was “prepared to support” prosecutions, according to documents, but federal agencies crossed wires with each other.
Three weeks before the confidential informant’s tip was phoned in, a BLM staffer with the Rock Springs Field Office signed off on an agreement that stated the federal agency had “no objection” to aerial predator control in Sweetwater County. That memo was signed “in error,” according to BLM-Wyoming public affairs officer Courtney Whiteman. Nevertheless, it gave the appearance of consent, and investigators concluded the document made it “unlikely” federal attorneys would still support prosecution. By December 2020, three federal investigators recommended closing the case. In lieu of indictments, they sent out a batch of warning letters.
Building a case
Two months after the informant’s first call, Stoinski received a tip that a Lincoln County Predator Control District-contracted helicopter was going to be illegally hunting up the Greys River the next day. The operation was set for mid-February, in the heart of winter and four months after cattle and sheep would have been herded off their Bridger-Teton National Forest grazing allotments.
The Wyoming Department of Agriculture and Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, which oversee and provide funding for county-level predator boards, requires pilots and gunners to be licensed by the state. That permitting, however, does not grant carte-blanche consent to kill predators over federal lands.
Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Director Amy Hendrickson hasn’t heard of predator boards deliberately flouting these requirements in recent years.
“But if that’s the case, we would not support that,” Hendrickson said. “We would never support that, and we have an expectation that the activity be done professionally and within the scope of the law.”
Two federal law enforcement officers snowmobiled up the Greys River on Feb. 19, 2020 in response to a tip about an illegal aerial hunting operation. The officers took this image of the airship, a Robinson R-66. They also documented snowmobiling hunters affiliated with the Lincoln County Predator Board who were in communication with men aboard the helicopter. (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service)
Rangers with the Forest Service and BLM snowmobiled in to document the mid-winter flight, according to the investigation reports. The two officers saw and photographed a blue Robinson R-66 helicopter flying low, circling designated closed winter range north of Deadman Ranch. One officer reported hearing a gunshot coming from an airship aloft, and they documented four individuals riding snowmobiles in the same area, each with a firearm case mounted to the front of their machines.
One of the men had a coyote strapped to the back of his snowmachine. He told the rangers he was in the area working for the Lincoln County Predator Control Board. The rangers did not inform the snowmobilers of the Airborne Hunting Act investigation, but they did cite them for snowmobile registration violations. While conversing, one of the rangers heard unintelligible chatter from an unidentified male calling one of the snowmobilers over a handheld radio. Audible in the background over the radio was the rotor clap of a helicopter.
The Airborne Hunting Act, also known as the Shooting from Aircraft Act, is a 1971 law that prohibits shooting or harassing any animal while airborne. It’s a straightforward, single-page statute that only allows for one exception: Employees or “authorized agents” of the U.S. Government or any state who are permitted or licensed to aerial hunt for the protection of “land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life or crops.” The issuance of those types of permits comes with reporting requirements. Gunners must be named, animals they can kill listed and logged, areas they can fly specified and a reason for the aerial actions stated.
The investigators, who queried federal officials for permits and came up empty handed, didn’t believe the predator boards met the exemption.
“SI-1 said Wildlife Services is in a ‘tough spot and have kept their mouths shut’ about this illegal activity,” the law enforcement documents say.
What’s allowed where?
Until recent years, Wildlife Services has performed most of the airborne predator killing in southwest Wyoming. The agency still contracts with a dozen of Wyoming’s 19 county predator control districts. But many agricultural industry stakeholders were dissatisfied with the quality of the federal government’s work.
Jon Child, for example, Lincoln County Predator Control District’s president at the time, has “openly said he can do a better job killing predators” than the federal government, a Game and Fish warden told federal investigators, according to the documents.
The county boards’ frustrations were also partly financial, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna told WyoFile.
“If you go back 25, 30 years, Wildlife Services was providing the major portion of funding for predator control in Wyoming,” Magagna said. “What’s been happening in the last few years is Wildlife Services has controlled the program, so to speak, but the vast majority of the funding that the program utilizes is coming from the state.”
According to a May 2021 presentation to lawmakers, Wildlife Services pays about $1.2 million annually for predator control in Wyoming. Woolgrowers and cattlemen chip in another $1 million through predator fees, and the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board provides the largest portion of $2.7 million.
Dissatisfaction with the federal government’s performance killing coyotes bled across jurisdictional boundaries into Sweetwater and Uinta counties, where predator boards terminated their agreements with Wildlife Services in 2020.
A Wyoming Game and Fish Department game warden documented a man hunting for coyotes while flying this paraplane over Bureau of Land Management property in Sweetwater County on Oct. 23, 2020. These types of aerial flights by private contractors drew the attention of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent who investigated allegations of Airborne Hunting Act violations in southwest Wyoming. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Sweetwater County once occupied more Wildlife Service flight time than any Wyoming county except Fremont. Between 2014 and 2018, the agency averaged 218 hours a year in the air working Sweetwater County predator damage claims, according to federal planning documents. But two years later the Sweetwater predator board “reworked” its predator management programs, turning to private contractors instead, according to minutes from a 2020 Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board meeting. That year the Sweetwater board requested $145,000 from the Wyoming board.
After the Sweetwater predator board ended its contract with the federal agency there was “no further communication about aerial control work,” Wildlife Services State Director Mike Foster told WyoFile in an email.
Gary Zakotnik, president of the Sweetwater predator board, said the Fish and Wildlife Service officials have since distanced themselves from Stoinski’s investigation.
“They told us that the [warning] letter was written by a disgruntled employee that was on his way to retirement, and he had no basis to write that letter,” Zakotnik said.
Until a warning letter landed in their mailbox two winters ago, Zakotnik’s impression was that it was legal to send private contractors up to gun coyotes over federal land.
“No one had ever told us that we couldn’t do it,” he said.