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In the News: Necropsy reveals brutal shovel beating of Mexican gray wolf

Rancher who admitted attacking the wolf faces loss of grazing permit – April 13, 2019

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A report obtained by an Arizona-based environmental group reveals the severity of injuries suffered by a Mexican gray wolf 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."

In the declaration, Thiessen said he released the wolf from the trap after it was subdued and that it was then killed by another wolf. But the center, citing the extent of the beating and because the radio collar was tampered with, suggests it may have been premeditated and the action was not only unlawful but unnecessary.

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.

This article was published in the Arizona Republic.

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Show your support for Mexican wolves with a Letter to the Editor today!

The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers.  Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.  Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.

Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points

  • The Forest Service should stand by its decision to revoke Mr. Thiessen's grazing permit to graze cattle across 50,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
  • The agency isn't harming Mr. Thiessen by enforcing the regulations. Mr. Thiessen brought this on himself when he chose to hit a collared Mexican wolf with a shovel.
  • Trappers are required to call New Mexico Game and Fish to report the capture of a wolf.  They are also supposed to carry a catch pole to restrain animals that need to be released.  If the animal can't be released safely, even a non-endangered cougar or bear, the trapper is required to call NMG&F for assistance.
  • When someone abuses their privilege, it is appropriate for the agency to take action, much like a landlord has the right to evict a tenant who isn't respecting a rental agreement or damaging the property.
  • The public has a right to ask for accountability when someone breaks the law on their land.
  • The US Forest Service has a legal mandate and a public trust obligation to protect endangered species and all natural assets on our National Forests. Private parties profiting from public assets through privileges granted by permits have the same obligation. Thiessen broke the rules and the public trust.  He deserves to be stripped of the privilege of profiting from public resources.
  • Practical solutions to reduce conflicts between livestock and wolves exist and help is available for those ranchers willing to try the tools and management techniques that lead to coexistence.

Make sure you:

• Thank the paper for publishing the article

• Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published

• Do not repeat any negative messages from the article, such as “so and so said that wolves kill too many cows, but…”  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article

• Keep your letter brief, under 200 words

• Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”

• Provide your name, address, phone number, and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.

Submit your letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic