Rage over a Wyoming wolf’s torment persists

Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

RIVERTON—From her home in the South Carolina countryside town of Six Mile, Lorraine Finazzo typically spends her weekdays managing construction projects for a New York City real estate developer.
Because of an incident involving a Wyoming wolf over 1,500 miles away, her productivity has waned of late.
“I’m at the computer crying everyday,” Finazzo said from the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Riverton. “I’m supposed to be working remotely and instead I’m like, ‘Oh my God there’s another video.’”
“I don’t know why I feel this way,” she added. “Helpless animal. It’s just wrong.”
The now infamous incident — that Daniel resident Cody Roberts ran down a subadult wolf on a snowmobile, muzzled the wounded animal and then showed it off at the bar before killing it — struck such a nerve with Finazzo that she resolved to travel all the way to Wyoming to share her views with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Her husband, Russell, and daughter, Nicole, came along for the odd vacation to the Wind River Valley.
Finazzo had never done anything like this. She barely slept Tuesday night, and leading up to taking the mic, she was nervous. But Finazzo’s voice held firm a couple hours after talking with WyoFile, when she got the chance to share her views with the seven-person body that oversees Wyoming’s wildlife. She took aim at how Roberts acquired the wolf: He told Game and Fish wardens who investigated that he ran it over with a snowmobile until it was so injured it could barely stay conscious — a fully legal practice in Wyoming.
“Knowing that the state permits snowmobiles to run over animals as a wildlife management tool is appalling,” Finazzo told commissioners. “I urge you to take the necessary steps to outlaw this barbaric practice, which only appeals to a small extreme minority in the state.”
Wave of outrage
Finazzo’s voice was one of dozens that Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioners heard Wednesday. Garnering headlines in national publications and even overseas tabloids, the wolf torture allegations have generated international outrage, creating a public relations nightmare for the state of Wyoming. Not a single person who spoke condoned Roberts’ actions, which to date have been punished only with a $250 fine for illegal possession of warm-blooded wildlife. Many people didn’t get the chance to say their part: At the onset of Wednesday’s meeting, the commission agreed to end public comment at the two-hour mark.
Commissioners, for the most part, did not weigh in responding to commenters. At the onset of the two-day meeting, they OK’d an official statement. That statement asserted that Wyoming is the “gold standard in wildlife management,” and it declared the Game and Fish Department acted with “transparency” in an incident that went unpublicized for over a month — until KHOL Jackson Hole Community Radio was tipped off and broke the story.
After hearing two hours of public comment, Game and Fish Commission President Richard Ladwig shared his views. The Air Force veteran from Niobrara County expressed frustration with the level of interest in the wolf torture incident relative to other atrocities that have occurred in Wyoming in recent weeks.
“I can’t believe there wasn’t more uproar with the 14-year-old boy that was stabbed to death in front of the mall in Casper, Wyoming, by two other teenagers,” Ladwig said. “That’s just as bad or worse than killing a wolf, and I don’t believe that there’s been the outrage that we’ve seen over this [wolf] with that situation.”
Much of the condemnation for what Roberts did at the Green River Bar has been less than civil. “A lot of our folks answering phones had to hear some extremely vulgar language,” Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King told WyoFile.
There were also threats from folks upset about the wolf’s treatment that led Game and Fish to request a big law enforcement presence at the Riverton meeting. Uniformed and plain-clothed cops were everywhere around the Holiday Inn.
“We were concerned, given the global attention that this had, and the passion and angst that was out there,” King said. “We wanted to make sure that everybody coming here today was safe.”
Desire for change
Commissioners took no formal action before the meeting adjourned. But Ralph Brokaw, a rancher from Arlington, said he was “anxious” for the commission to do something.
“But we have to have deference,” Brokaw said. “We have to have deference to the governor, and the leadership that he’s surrounded himself with.”
“I would just assure people,” he said, “that we’re going to find a path forward.”
Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told the room that he was meeting with Gov. Mark Gordon, state legislators and “agriculture folks” later on Wednesday to discuss the incident. There was no clear outcome to that meeting, which Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for the governor, called “informal.”
“It was a discussion about what happened and … a general conversation about wolf management,” Pearlman said. “They’re not working on an actionable item or an agenda or anything like that, these are just conversations.”
So what’s the path for reform? Advocacy groups and engaged citizens have called for multiple changes, a couple of often-repeated policy steps being a prohibition on running over animals with snowmobiles and adjustments to Wyoming’s animal cruelty statutes to more explicitly include species classified as predators, like coyotes, red fox and wolves in 85% of Wyoming.
Jessi Johnson, a longtime lobbyist for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, pointed out that many of the reforms being called for are outside the authority of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Yet, on Wednesday that was the body that was the sounding board for the disgust and calls for change.
“People go and burn a lot of energy. They travel, spend money to be here and express a lot of emotion and feelings,” Johnson said. “But it’s [being told] to an entity that often can’t do anything because they are statutorily handcuffed by the Legislature.”
There are two legislative committees particularly equipped to execute reform, Johnson said. The Agriculture Committee is one, because that’s the body that deals with predatory animal statutes. The Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee is the other, because its members oversee a lot of the wildlife statutes.
There are indications that those legislative committees will at least take a look at changing the law because of what happened to the wolf in Sublette County.
Nesvik, the Game and Fish director, is scheduled to update the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee on wolf management at its May 14-15 meeting in Cody. There’s not yet an agenda for the Agriculture Committee’s next meeting, planned for June 6-7 in Rock Springs.
One lawmaker who happens to sit on both committees attended the commission meeting in Riverton. Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis), a retired outfitter, is no fan of Canis lupus — he believes “the wolf is an illegal animal in the state of Wyoming” — but he also foresees lasting changes as a result of what happened to one particular wolf.
“I’m sure there will be [changes],” Winter told WyoFile. “There’ll be something with snowmachines. Right now I’m not willing to get too involved in it, but when the time comes I’ll say my piece.”
“There’s a lot of hoopla and a lot of feelings going around right now,” he added, “and it’s not really time to make decisions.”
Some wildlife activists say they’re committed to harnessing the intense interest in an abused Wyoming wolf, and using it to see through that statute changes.
“This is it,” said Lisa Robertson, a Jackson Hole resident who’s long sought trapping reform and to ban the practice of running down coyotes with snowmobiles. “It’s all coming together, and there’s no way it’s going to be dropped, period.”
Johnson, with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, is skeptical. She’s seen how viral incidents and white-hot demand for reform have shaken out before.
“Unfortunately, I think what we’re going to see is a lot of emotion here [at the Game and Fish Commission meeting],” she said. “But I don’t know if we’re going to see it translate to the [Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee] meeting in Cody in May or the Agriculture Committee meeting in Rock Springs in June.”
Johnson’s been a lobbyist in Wyoming for nearly a decade. And during all that time, she’s observed notably fewer people attending legislative committee meetings, she said. Whether the current outrage over a tormented wolf changes that trend remains to be seen.
(WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.)