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The role of wolves in Wyoming

Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies are managed by states including Wyoming despite the species being listed as federally endangered in the rest of the lower 48 states. (Ronan Donovan/National Geographic)

In the top photo, a wolf lies muzzled and leashed allegedly at the Green River Bar in Daniel. Cody Roberts was fined $250 for the "possession of a live animal." (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Recent allegations of wolf abuse in the southwest part of the Cowboy state have drawn attention from around the world.

In early March, Cody Roberts was fined $250 by Game and Fish for “possession of a live animal.” Roberts allegedly hit the wolf with a snowmobile, muzzled and leashed it, took it home and walked it into Green River Bar in Daniel, Wyoming before killing it. Many wildlife organizations in Wyoming and around the nation are calling for further charges — and Sublette County is investigating — but the killing of the wolf was legal and Game and Fish is not pursuing further charges as of now.

Jackson Hole Community Radio’s Dante Filpula Ankney talked with the station’s Emily Cohen — who first reported the story — and Wyofile’s Mike Koshmrl about the difficulties of reporting this story and the role wolves play in our collective consciousness here in Wyoming and around the world.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dante Filpula Ankney: To start, wolves. They're a big deal all over the Mountain West. But I'm curious what makes wolves unique in Wyoming?

Mike Koshmrl: I'm happy to go. So the way that Wyoming set up its wolf management system — when the state gained jurisdiction of the species about 12 years ago — is the state legislature set aside this area where wolves would be managed as a predator. And then in the area closest to the national parks, they'd be managed as a trophy game species. If this incident that happened, would have happened in the trophy game area, there'd be all sorts of legal recourse for Game and Fish. But the way that wolves are managed, in what I call the predator zone, just allows for a lot more to happen to animals in that area. And so it was just kind of like a management decision, in a way, that played into what happened.

DFA: Yeah. Emily, do you have anything to add about what made this situation a little bit unique?

Emily Cohen: Well I also think that with wolves being delisted in 2017 from the Federal Endangered Species Act, Wolf management across the West does vary — and so that also plays into this. Wolves are protected in Colorado but not in Wyoming. So obviously there's variations within the state, but there's variations within the United States as well.

DFA: Perfect. I'm going to take us all the way back to the beginning, right before this story was published. Emily, could you tell me how you learned about this story?

EC: Yeah, I got a tip from someone who had heard about this incident, and we were both at the same event. I guess that was in early March, and she had heard about the incident through a friend. She told me and I was shocked. So one of my first instincts was actually to reach out to Mike, to see if this was as crazy as I thought it was. And then I also reached out to Game Fish to find out if they had more information on it and to get that information. So it was basically an acquaintance that I know who told me about this and, from there, I just tried to get the facts.

DFA: Yeah. And then, Mike, you made your own trip down south of Jackson here. Could you describe what it was like reporting on this story?

MK: Yeah. I was actually out of the country. I was visiting my brother in South Korea. So, yeah, I was overseas when Emily first told me about what she had heard and kind of right as I was getting back to the States, the news was really starting to build. And there's more and more attention on this. One of the first things that I did to try to report was just go out there, you know, go to the Green River Bar. I knew that this individual had not been talking to reporters and so I thought I'd try to make a pitch to talk to him and say, “hey, I'm happy to tell your side of the story,” because this is going to blow up. I wanted to give him a chance to say his piece. So I went to his house, there was no one home. And then went to the Green River Bar after. While I was at the bar, their phone was pretty much ringing off the hook. I think I was probably there for 45 minutes and five random calls came in from people at that time. That incident was really blowing up right around that time. It got picked up by the Globe Mail, a tabloid in London and then subsequently, I feel like there's just been more and more interest. And it's been very challenging reporting on it because official communication from the agencies that have investigated the primary agency of Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been very limited because of a statute that they believe prevents them from talking about wolves that have died.

DFA: I'll definitely be asking you about that in a second here. I wonder if you both could describe the atmosphere, you know, what's it, what's it look like at this bar?

EC: Well, I got the tip on a Thursday afternoon and that Saturday had driven down to Daniel, to the bar. And, it's like a throwback, I guess. Kind of from another era. There's still smoking, for example, in the bar. And it's obviously very different from Jackson. And the prices, the menu is very different. But it's a lot of locals, regulars and kind of just on a strip of road where there's a lot of dilapidated buildings across the street. Probably, I'd say at least 50, 60, 70 years old. And then there's the Green River bar, and that is obviously still standing, but it’s still kind of a throwback from another era. I got a slaw dog for, I think, $3.

MK: Oh yeah, you know, going to this guy's house at the time I did. I wasn't aware that the story was so explosive and there was so much interest. I didn't have any interaction with the person. And so, you know, I just was going as I normally would as a reporter trying to get information. I think showing up is an effective way of doing that, to get info out and so that's why I did it. But, yeah, I believe the Green River Bar is the oldest building in Daniel. It is like Emily said, it's kind of a throwback, absolutely. It was pretty tense there, especially because I'm a reporter and I had to identify myself as a reporter. The phones were, like, ringing from other reporters. And there's a lot of people, the patrons at the bar, you know, they didn't think it was fair that this one guy's actions were directing all this outrage toward the bar. And so definitely there were some comments made to me, and they weren’t necessarily perfectly nice. But nevertheless, I hung in there and I was there for about an hour just trying to get some information and see if I could find anyone who was present, the night that this allegedly happened.

DFA: You both used words like “explosive” talking about the reaction to this story, could you guys describe the reaction from the public, from other reporting outlets? Were you surprised by it?

EC: I was rather surprised at how quick it went viral, so to speak. We published it on a Friday afternoon and our page views, for example, were just through the roof. More views on this one story than we normally get in like a month, on all of our work. So I was really surprised by that. And then I think once the Cowboy State Daily picked it up, it really went, like it went even further. I was actually a little nervous at the reaction of the public, that they'd be angrier with the report. I thought there would be more anger directed towards me or to the station for reporting this. And I did hear a little bit of that, but mostly I think the reaction has been from wolf proponents so to speak. People who are angry at what happened.

MK: When I first heard about what happened from Emily, I thought it was one of the more outrageous incidents I’ve heard and I've been covering wildlife in Wyoming for over a decade. It was one of the more outrageous individual incidents that I'd really ever heard about. The details were just so gruesome and I mean, frankly, kind of disturbing. I had a pretty strong feeling that it would go viral and blow up, especially if we were able to get photos and accounts of what happened. And yeah, the scope of that maybe I underestimated, like how much interest there would be. It's been in the New York Post and it has been covered by a couple of British tabloids. My social media feeds as a bearing, I mean it's just there's just immense interest. And almost universally, I'd say, outrage for what the person did. You don't see many or any comments really defending his actions.

DFA: I wonder if either of you guys would venture to try and put some context into the “why.” Why do people care so much about wolves in this area?

EC: I think wolves hold a pretty unusual place in the human psyche. Wolves were the first animals domesticated by humans. We have a very strong bond with dogs, they are living with us in our homes. And so there's that, but then I think throughout history there's been so many references to wolves from like Romulus and Remus. The founders of the Roman Empire who were supposedly nursed by a wolf as infants. And there's Mowgli in “The Jungle Book,” and there's the big bad wolf, and there's all these references, good and bad, throughout history. Wolves are a little unusual in that way. And yeah sure, there's other animals that hold that place, but. I'm not sure you can quite find another animal that we have this duality with, where we both fear and love. And I think there's a lot to that, largely because of their lineage with dogs.

MK: I think that in Wyoming specifically, attitudes toward wolves are maybe a little bit more heated, just because of the history of reintroduction. I grew up in Minnesota where there always essentially were wolves. They were never totally wiped out. Whereas here, they were exterminated I want to say in the 1920’s and then like 70 years later the federal government brought them back. So there are certainly strong anti-fed sentiments in western states including Wyoming. And that action of putting wolves back in Yellowstone, in the mid 90s, I think that there's still latent strong feelings that have stuck with the species. You know, perhaps that makes the reaction to these kinds of incidents stronger. And I agree with pretty much everything Emily said about the kind of the space that they occupy in our psyche and it just seems to be inherent in the species that they bring out very strong feelings for and against.

DFA: Mike, you mentioned earlier that it wasn't very easy to get information for this story. Emily, I know you struggled as well. Could you guys explain why that is?

EC: Well, I think Game and Fish is really sensitive around this topic. Understandably so, this has gotten a lot of blowback. And there is a statute that does prevent them from talking about wolves killed in the predator zone. But obviously this is a little bit of a different situation because it wasn't just that the wolf was killed, the wolf was captured and allegedly tortured. And based on the photo evidence we've seen, I think we can fairly say that. Yeah, with Game and Fish originally, I think they were very curt with me and were just trying to give very short answers. We did have an interview scheduled and they canceled the interview just before it was supposed to happen and really haven't said much beyond that. I think Mike can probably speak to this a little bit better about why they are being so reticent.

MK: Yeah, I referenced this statute earlier. This statute dates to when Wyoming gained jurisdiction over wolves. There's some legislation included in that legislation that just kind of sets the framework for managing wolves. There is a provision that basically prohibited the state from giving out identifying information about legally killed wolves. That statute — I'd say it's fair to say — has stymied the free flow of information about things that are in a lot of public interest. For example, there’s not many wolves right now in Colorado, right? But there is one pack that the state just reintroduced. If those wolves come north into Wyoming and are shot in Wyoming, the state of Wyoming has the position that they cannot even acknowledge that those wolves were killed anywhere in southern Wyoming. No, they couldn't even say in the southern, like third of the state. Not only would they not disclose that to the public, they would not disclose that to the state of Colorado. And so they stay very true to how they believe this statute should be interpreted. In this situation, it's clouded by the fact that this guy engaged in illegal activity before he killed the wolf. I think that is the complicated part of it, that this guy did something illegal, which, on its face, would make the statute moot. But then he actually killed the wolf, and that was a legal act. So does the earlier thing he did that is illegal therefore make the statute irrelevant later, when he legally killed the wolf? I think the answer to that is, we don't know yet.

DFA: How does this event fit into this bigger picture of wolves in the Mountain West?

MK: One thing I'd say is the way a state manages wolves and an individual state is not necessarily of that much broad public interest. And so this incident, which is of massive interest clearly, to people around the country, I think it's like cueing people into how a state like Wyoming manages wolves. It's teaching people about concepts like the predator zone and how wolves don't have protection and you can kill them in any way, including running them over with snowmobiles. Which, you know, there's an element of culture in Wyoming that condones that kind of behavior. I think, in a way, there's a tradition of doing that kind of thing. But, to the broader society, it's not okay. It's an antiquated way of treating wildlife. I'd say the broader public doesn't think it should be allowed anywhere, including Wyoming. So, I just think that this incident is like exposing some of these rifts between how we manage wildlife like wolves in a western rural state and the feelings of urban folks and people from around the country who maybe disagree with those management techniques, but were previously unaware of them.

DFA: Emily, anything to add on this event in particular and its kind of broader scope?

EC: I'm very curious how it will play out and if policy will change. Obviously, there's a lot of heat around this right now and I think our legislature is going to a committee. There’s going to be a meeting in May and I imagine this will be a topic of conversation. You know, and how it changes rules. I don't know, but I'm really curious about how it's going to play out and I think it remains to be seen.

DFA: That kind of perfectly feeds into my next question here which is, what's next?

MK: I'm paying attention to a couple things. One, there are some outstanding legal questions. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has come out and repeatedly said that they do not believe that the animal cruelty statute applies to predatory species. But this Sublette County attorney has a different interpretation of the statute. And so, there is still a possibility that Cody Roberts will face additional prosecution for animal rights violations. So that's of course something that I have on my radar and another thing that I'm trying to get a sense of and keep my finger on the pulse of is the public reception. Like man, early this week, I was getting more emails and texts and just outreach and seeing there was hysteria around this incident. I'm curious, I'm just genuinely curious if that will sustain or if it'll die down and become an incident that just kind of fades into history. I really don't know at this point.

Dante Filpula Ankney comes to KHOL as a lifelong resident of the Mountain West. He made his home on the plains of Eastern Montana before moving to the Western Montana peaks to study journalism and wilderness studies. Dante has found success producing award-winning print, audio and video stories for a variety of publications, including a stint as a host at Montana Public Radio. Most recently, he spent a year teaching English in Bulgaria through a Fulbright Fellowship. When he isn’t reporting, you can find Dante outside scaling rocks, sliding across snow or winning a game of cribbage.
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