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By Chris Clarke
The wolf whose death started it all. Wolf #10 just before release into Yellowstone National Park, 1995 | Photo: Jim Peaco/NPS
The damage Chad McKittrick has done to America’s endangered species might finally be coming to an end.
In March, 1995, 14 gray wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park, part of an attempt to reintroduce the species to the area. Biologists working the project were especially fond of one wolf in particular. He was a big, medium-gray male, “Wolf #10,” added to the reintroduction group as a mate for a single black female, “Wolf #9.” The largest of the wolves in what biologists hoped would become the Rose Creek Pack, #10 seemed destined to make history.
Wolves #9 and #10 hit it off in a big way. Within two weeks of their release into the wild, #9 and #10 had wandered far enough from the Park that they were out of range of the biologists’ ground-based tracking equipment. A survey from the air found the pair eleven days later: they’d headed north, and were exploring the forests near Red Lodge, Montana, likely seeking out a place for #9 to deliver the litter of pups she was already carrying.
That’s where they ran into McKittrick, an unemployed carpenter in his forties. The encounter did not end well.
Against the advice of his friend Dusty Steinmasel, who had just helped him free a stuck pickup, McKittrick shot #10. (Steinmasel would later testify that he’d suggested #10 might be “somebody’s dog,” and that McKittrick had said “That’s a wolf, Dusty. I’m going to shoot it.”)
When the pair reached #10’s stiffening body, they saw the wolf’s prominent radio tracking collar emblazoned with the words “National Park Service,” and the red U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ear tags he wore. They dragged his 122-pound carcass down a hill, loaded it into the bed of a pickup truck, drove to a grove of cottonwoods and hung #10 from a tree limb. McKittrick beheaded and skinned the wolf, wanting trophies. The two men then threw the rest of the carcass down an embankment.
Steinmasel, who had repeatedly urged McKittrick that they should turn themselves in, eventually confessed his role in the wolf killing to federal wildlife investigators. McKittrick was arrested and charged with violating the federal Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which forbids the transport of wildlife obtained illegally. (Even if the wild animal is dead at the time and only portions of it are transported.)
In court, McKittrick made several arguments about the legality of Endangered Species Act protection of the experimental Yellowstone wolf population. Those arguments did not sway the jury. Nor did McKittrick’s argument, which he made despite Steinmasel’s testimony to the contrary, that he thought he was shooting a dog. McKittrick appealed his conviction to the Ninth Circuit, whose judges weren’t any more sympathetic than the jury had been. That court upheld McKittrick’s conviction in 1998. McKittrick then attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case.