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Wolf’s capture, torment puts Wyoming on path toward legal reform

A group of state lawmakers, agency heads and industry and advocacy group lobbyists will meet in coming months to assess laws related to the now infamous capture of a wolf that was kept alive while gravely injured and brought to a Sublette County bar for a local resident’s entertainment.

That incident, which occurred Feb. 29, incited global condemnation and even calls to boycott Wyoming as a tourist destination.

Now it has a real shot at changing state law.

“I’d like to assign a working group to look at a few issues, mainly [an] enhanced penalty for having a live wolf,” Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody) told members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee on Wednesday.

The group, she added, could potentially examine statutes related to the public display of a live wild animal.

Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody) at the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

Newsome, who co-chairs the panel, announced the subcommittee’s membership: It’ll be chaired by Rep. Liz Storer (D-Jackson), who will be joined by Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis) and Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) and Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). Non-lawmaker public officials include Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto, and a representative from Gov. Mark Gordon’s office. Two lobbyists will join the subcommittee: Wyoming Stock Growers Association representative Jim Magagna and Wyoming Wildlife Federation representative Jessi Johnson.

Although Newsome noted specific topics for the subcommittee to examine, Storer senses the group isn’t bound to only laws pertaining to wolf possession and public display of wildlife.

“Sandy said to me, ‘Here’s your task,’ and I said, ‘Well, the committee may want to broaden that out,’” Storer told WyoFile. “I think it depends on what the subcommittee members want to do, but obviously the public discussion has been broader, right?”

Storer said that she’s interested in the subcommittee exploring this question: “Are Wyoming statutes adequate to ensure the humane treatment of predators while recognizing the need to address the predation of livestock and other issues related to predator management?”

Daniel resident Cody Roberts admitted to Game and Fish investigators that he took possession of a live wolf by hitting it with a snowmobile, reportedly until it was so injured it could barely stay conscious. (Video of the wolf lying listless on the floor of a local bar lends credence to the allegation.) Past legislative attempts at prohibiting the practice of running over predatory species like coyotes with snowmobiles have failed, but it’s another legal matter the new subcommittee could revisit.

“Is there an appetite to draw the line differently than we do now?” Storer asked. “I’d have to go study the statutes, but if I had to guess, the exemptions for predators probably predate the manufacture of snowmachines.”

Rep. Liz Storer (D-Jackson) during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Retired Laramie veterinarian Donal O’Toole testified about “motorized harassment of native predators” to the committee during the Tuesday portion of its meeting.

“We have a statewide problem of recreational abuse of wildlife — they just happen to be predators,” O’Toole said. “The truth is it’s not that difficult an issue. It just takes one or two lines to amend our animal cruelty statutes. All you need to do is to write that purposeful harassing, torturing and killing predators by motorized vehicles is illegal in this state.”

Nesvik, the Game and Fish director, updated the committee on Wyoming wolf issues. During that discussion Tuesday he touched on the Sublette County incident, suggesting that there was no need to quickly change the law.

“There’s not an urgent crisis to make a change tomorrow,” Nesvik said.

Allegations that a Wyoming man captured, tortured and killed a wolf have sparked outrage across the world and prompted a wave of social media posts. (collage by Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Comments from Nesvik and others who testified about acting fast in response to the Daniel wolf incident were shaped by a Gov. Mark Gordon-assembled stakeholder group charged with devising a response to the Sublette County wolf incident, according to reporting in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. Members of that stakeholder group and the new legislative subcommittee partially overlap: Nesvik, Magagna, the governor’s office and Wyoming Wildlife Federation are a part of both groups.

Roberts’ illegal possession of a gravely injured live wolf was not publicized for a month, until after it was reported by KHOL Jackson Hole Community Radio. He was cited and fined $250 by a Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden on March 4.

Sublette County prosecuting attorneys, who were not informed of the incident until after it blew up in the news, disagree with Game and Fish about whether species classified as predators are covered by animal cruelty statutes.

“It’s an active investigation that’s ongoing and charges are possible,” Sublette County Prosecuting Attorney Clayton Melinkovich told WyoFile on Wednesday.

Newsome initially announced a “working group,” but it was changed to a formal legislative subcommittee at Rep. Don Burkhart’s (R-Rawlins) urging. That’ll bring transparency to the process, because meetings will be noticed and open to the public, Storer said.

The subcommittee is likely to meet once or twice in June, then report its progress to the broader Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee at its July 9-10 meeting in Casper. It likely wouldn’t be until September that the committee would work through bills that would be introduced during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2025 general session, which begins in January.

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