Andrew Nicla, Arizona Republic
Rancher who admitted attacking the wolf faces loss of grazing permit
A report obtained by an Arizona-based environmental group reveals the severity of injuries suffered by a Mexican graywolf that was trapped and beaten with a shovel by a New Mexico rancher in 2015.
That wolf later died and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to revoke the rancher’s grazing permit.
According to the agency’s report, which described the necropsy conducted on the animal, the wolf’s lower jaw was fractured and detached, its stomach was ruptured and there were puncture wounds on its throat and front left paw. USFW’s investigation report of the wolf’s death also found a magnet taped to the wolf’s radio collar, noting it was “apparent someone wanted to block the collar from sending signals.”
The Center for Biological Diversity released a statement Monday and shared details of the report, evidence it says justifies the revocation of Craig Thiessen’s grazing permit in November 2018.
Thiessen has since appealed the action, stating in a January declaration that while he “knowingly took” the wolf, he was afraid for his life and struck the wolf in the “heat of the moment.”
Laws require a rancher to notify a wildlife authority within a day of seeing an animal caught in a trap. While a rancher can harm or kill a wolf in certain circumstances, there are few exceptions.
Earlier admission led to permit revocation
Robin Silver, the center’s co-founder, a board member and medical doctor, called Thiessen’s claim that he feared for his life “nonsense,” and added that there’s little evidence supporting his claim that another wolf killed it. What the report shows, Silver said, is that Thiessen’s attempt to subdue the animal directly led to its death.
“That’s like saying if you shot somebody and they were able to walk away but then they died, your defense would be ‘well, I didn’t kill them, I just wounded them,'” Silver said.
“I don’t think a jury would go for that. I don’t see any difference here.”
If another wolf had ripped the jaw off of the wolf in question, Silver said, there would have been different and more frequent puncture wounds. In other cases of a wolf being caught in a trap, ranchers have followed the law requiring them to contact a wildlife authority or have just released the animals and then called.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said the wolf succumbed to the injuries inflicted by Thiessen, who has not admitted to killing it. But his admission to striking the wolf was enough to convict him of violating the Endangered Species Act, which gives the Mexican gray wolves protections most animals don’t have.
Thiessen pleaded guilty to knowingly taking threatened wildlife. “Taking” is a legal term that can cover a range of activities that can harm or kill an animal.
He was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation and fined $2,300. The U.S. Forest Service then moved to revoke his permit to graze cattle across 50,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
Thiessen has appealed the proposed revocation of his permit, a process that could take around six months.
He did not respond to repeated attempts by The Republic to contact him for this story.
‘I was afraid for my life’
Thiessen told The Republic in December, “If I lose it, I’ll have nothing. I won’t have a home … a livelihood … a ranch.” He defended himself in the January declaration, in which he said he struck the wolf with a shovel out of fear for his life and did not mean to kill it.
“When I discovered the wolf in the trap, I was afraid for my life,” Thiessen stated in his January declaration.
“I struck the wolf with a shovel in an attempt to stun the animal in what I believed was self-defense.”
Thiessen’s defense is a central part of a legal gray area of what rights ranchers have and how those intersect with the protections the Mexican Gray wolf benefits from.
Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, focuses on the protection and recovery of predators like the Mexican gray wolf. Robinson said while the wolf is considered endangered, it’s an “experimental nonessential” species, which allows for Fish and Wildlife to craft rules that allow for some trapping, harming and wounding of them, as long as the rules promote recovery.
For example, Robinson said, ranchers can kill a wolf if it is attacking livestock and they can apply for a permit if they can prove these wolves kill their livestock often. An individual can also kill an animal if they have a “reasonable fear” for their life.
Although Robinson wasn’t familiar with the details of Thiessen’s case, he said it would hypothetically be difficult to prove a person was scared of a trapped animal. Such loose and often vague rules are being debated and crafted in a series of lawsuits, some of which the center is involved in.
The rules for other animals, like the gray wolf, a larger species related to the Mexican gray wolf, could soon be eliminated. The federal government has proposed plans to strip gray wolves of endangered species protections, which Robinson fears could allow people to harm or kill Mexican gray wolves and claim they thought it was a different species of wolf.
Such a change would affect states differently, because there is no uniform regulation to protect these animals. What Robinson is focused on now are the threats the wolf faces today and how to better balance its survival and the needs of ranchers.
“The Mexican gray wolf is still close to extinction,” Robinson said, adding that the population has had a significant increase in its latest annual count.
“It needs stronger protections and protections for gray wolves need to be retained for the gray wolves and their smaller subspecies cousins,” he said.
But if the Mexican gray wolf population continues to grow, Robinson said he worries that their hard-fought protections could be stripped, too. The threshold to declare a species healthy enough to remove the protections are not uniform to every species in a region and depend on many factors, some of which are also being hashed out in courthouses.
Whatever the outcome of all of those cases, particularly Thiessen’s, it could set a precedent in an area that some experts and advocates on both sides of the debate say is needed. This would be the first time the Forest Service would revoke a rancher’s grazing permit for harming a Mexican gray wolf.
In December, the executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, Caren Cowan, said the Forest Service went too far and that it was going to “take (Thiessen’s) life away” for a misdemeanor charge. If Thiessen loses his permit, he’d lose something he’s invested most of his life and money into and walk away with 40 acres of land near the Gila Forest, which he said isn’t enough to raise one cow.