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Wolf Crossings

A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection

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Updated 10-06

 

Fish and Wildlife Cry Wolf


By Fred Kelly Grant

The “war of the wolves” rages in the Intermountain West. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming the combatants are the “pro-wolf” groups who support federal wolf protection under the Endangered Species Act and the “anti-wolf” groups who contend that the artificial implanting and protection of the wolves upsets the natural scheme of elements in the wild.

The battle ebbs and flows. It often shifts to the political wings of state capitals, with governors and legislators being pressed from both sides. Ranchers have been very vocal in their demands that their livestock be protected against attacks from hungry packs of wolf predators. Politicians have even passed laws in Idaho that provide for compensation to ranchers whose stock is lost to wolves.

In the middle are citizens, perhaps not as learned in biological science as the combatants, but concerned as to whether their domestic animals, their dogs, their family pets and, indeed, their persons and family members are safe from wolves which have forever been surrounded by a dark mystique.

The dispute has heated up in Idaho within the last few weeks with eyewitness accounts of wolves attacking, tearing apart and literally devouring prize hunting dogs on a walk with their unarmed owner. Another witness has reported a wolf coming into his backyard and attacking the family dachshund. Wolf opponents are scrambling to get the middle ground citizens involved through petitions demanding that action be taken to make wolves fair game to hunters.

Quickly coming to the center of this battle is Tim Sundles who lives in the central wilds of Idaho, on Carmen Creek, not far outside Salmon, Idaho. He has been charged by the federal prosecutor with two criminal counts, which subject him to the threat of imprisonment and fines. The first count charges that he violated the Endangered Species Act by “attempting to harm and kill a threatened species…a gray wolf (Canis Lupus) by…baiting said protected wildlife with poisonous ‘meatballs’.” The second count charges that he violated a federal regulation by placing pesticide (Temrik) laden “meatballs” on federal land in the Salmon National Forest.

The charges allege that Sundles placed these meatballs in the Wagonhammer Creek area of the Forest, a spot about 21 miles from his home, on February 19, 2004. Charges were not filed until October 13, 2005, 20 months after the alleged violation. During this long delay, the government has obviously spent thousands of dollars in its agents’ attempts to lay this violation at the feet of Sundles. The Court documents, as well as news coverage and the bombardment of websites and blogs, make it clear that the agents set out to “pin” the charges to Sundles.

This federal attention, which now has one of the most experienced prosecutors in the United States Attorneys office assigned to the case, has been focused on the particular “meatballs” at Wagonhammer Creek even though the government does not allege that even one wolf sickened or died. The allegations are that the “meatballs” made a dog sick and killed a magpie. There is no witness who directly ties Sundles to the placement of the meatballs. There is no evidence that he was even in the Wagonhammer area on the dates in question. In fact, his attorney has served notice on the government that he intends to rely on proof that he was not in the area on that date, and has offered the names of the witnesses who will prove his physical absence from the area. The evidence collected by the government is all circumstantial. Sundles has pleaded not guilty, and a trial is expected within the next few weeks. He adamantly denies his guilt.

Tim Sundles operates an ammunition company located in the rugged, beautiful Salmon area of Custer County. It is a company known all over the world. He is a hunter, and he has an area of his building where he treats game, and allows neighbors to hang and treat their game takes. The impact of conviction on his business and his reputation, and the long personal ordeal which Sundles has experienced with an on-going federal investigation during which his friends, family members and business customers have been interrogated time and again, finally forced him to seek legal counsel to defend himself. Representing him is David Nevin, an attorney who participated in the defense in the infamous Ruby Ridge trial, which resulted from government swat tactics in north Idaho. When Sundles first called Stewards of the Range to seek assistance with his costs, he said, “I am absolutely innocent of the charge. The government is trying to convict an innocent man.”

In their quest to gain conviction, government agents have twice executed search warrants aimed at Sundles. During his absence on a trip to New Mexico to participate in a commemoration of the infamous Bataan Death March in World War II, agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Fish and Game and the Lemhi County [Idaho] sheriff’s office searched his home and property. Idaho Fish and Game admits that at least 15 agents were involved in the search. The “SWAT” team nature of the search is attested to by friends and neighbors who saw the task force and were warned away from the scene of the search. As reported in Range Magazine, Summer, 2005, p. 73, the friend who was feeding Sundles horses while he was away went to see what was happening. He was met on the road to the house by officers “wearing a black uniform and flack jacket.” When he got out of his vehicle, one of the officers stepped forward with “some sort of automatic weapon,” and the friend quickly left. Another neighbor reported in the same magazine article that a Sheriff’s deputy came to his door to warn him that a search warrant was being executed and that no one was allowed at the site.

 

The neighbor was quoted as saying “I wondered if this was going to be another Ruby Ridge.”


Sundles believes that the government agents set their sights on him because of an incident that occurred five years ago, in July, 2001. After a particularly busy season, he and his wife took a short vacation, going on a pack trip to the middle fork of the Salmon River, to a place favored by his wife because she got her first elk in a hunt there. Just before daylight they were awakened by frightened noises from their pack animals, and the nearby howling of wolves. Sundles shouted and fired a small revolver into the air to scare off the wolves. In the morning, after breakfast, the two started off to fish. About a football field from camp they saw a gray wolf stalking a pack animal. When Sundles fired into the air, the wolf turned and charged straight toward him. He says that he fired at the wolf, but missed as the wolf was dodging through trees. Sundles told Range Magazine “He got within 15 feet of me, then veered off, and came right at my wife. That’s when she dropped and I shot the wolf.”

Sundles didn’t immediately tell the story of the shooting to the Fish and Game or Fish and Wildlife officials. He and his wife had just suffered this trauma in the heart of the central Idaho wilds. There is no handy telephone booth to use to make such reports. And, he reports that he was afraid to be subjected to the government’s wrath, which is unleashed on people who violate the Endangered Species Act.

Several weeks later he decided to tell his story during a hearing held by Senator Mike Crapo (R-Id) in the town of Salmon. Sundles could have buried the dead wolf, never reported it, and escaped the focus of the government’s power. But, he decided that people should be told about the viciousness of the wolves, especially in view of the position taken publicly by government agencies and pro-wolf groups that a wolf will not attack humans. So, he presented his testimony during the public hearing.

The government agents began a long investigation, attempting to cast doubt on Sundles’ self defense account of the shooting. They even presented witnesses to a grand jury, but the jury returned no charges against Sundles. He has reported that the agents were relentless in their pursuit of someone who would discount Sundles story.

Then came the discovery of the poisoned meatballs at an area 21 miles from Sundles home.

 

In spite of Sundles denial that he had anything to do with the placement of the poison, agents visited his customers, friends and family, pressing them to make statements incriminating Sundles. An outfitter in Texas who has hunted with Sundles reported to Range Magazine that in May 2004, an agent of Fish and Wildlife in Fort Worth, Texas, told him that the agencies were after Sundles for the poisoning incident, they believed Sundles was involved in poisoning wolves, and they “were going to get him.” The outfitter reported that the agent tried to intimidate him, but his degree in criminal justice helped him resist the threat.


Discovery of the poisoned meatballs gave the agents another crack at Sundles. They had previously failed to get a grand jury to charge him. But, after 20 months of investigation, including taking of samples of elk meat and blood from Sundles place of business, they convinced the U.S. Attorneys office to file the charges in an Information, thus avoiding a grand jury. And, Sundles faces possible ruin to his business, imprisonment and heavy fines.

Right now he faces heavy attorney fees. He is represented by one of the best criminal attorneys in Boise, and the cost will be high. A trial date of July 31, 2006, was vacated so that defense and government motions can be filed and briefed. The trial date has been reset for December 4th, and prior to that time, defense counsel will be heavily involved in developing expert opinions, discovery issues, and evidentiary hearings.

The government has filed a motion asking that the Judge exclude any evidence of the shooting of the wolf by Sundles in July 2001. The motion admits that the federal grand jury did not return a charge as to the shooting, and that the government determined that “insufficient evidence” existed to pursue a criminal charge against Sundles on that charge.

 

The government obviously fears the jury impact of how Sundles had to defend his and his wife’s lives against a charging wolf. The government argues that evidence of the incident “will confuse the issues before the jury, as well as mislead them through the development of evidence unrelated” to the poisoning charge. Why would the government fear such evidence?

 

On the one hand, the jury would be told of the danger of wolves to humans, and on the other, the defense could argue that anonymous poisoning of wolves was not characteristic of Sundles. A sometimes effective defense position is that when the defendant takes an act that might violate the law, he says so and faces the consequences. Sundles admitted shooting the wolf. So, when he says that he did not put out poisoned meatballs, his story takes on credibility.


The presiding judge, Magistrate Mikel Williams, has not yet ruled on the motion.

A defense motion to suppress much of the government’s evidence shows that the defense believes the government is relying on no direct evidence of guilt, but on hearsay, confidential informants who can’t be challenged, and innuendo. The motion refers to evidence that a Salmon meat processor “believes” that when Sundles has his game meat butchered he does not add fat to it. So, from that and the fact that the elk meat in the meatballs was “lean.” the government concludes that Sundles prepared the lean meatballs. According to the motion, there is no other evidence associating the elk meat in the meatballs with Sundles. The motion also refers to an “unnamed informant” who told the government that a truck, which “may have been” like one owned by Sundles was spotted at the Wagonhammer trailhead just two days before the meatballs sickened a dog. The motion claims that such bare allegation was insufficient to support the search warrant issued and executed in the case.

The motion points out that boot prints in the snow near the meatballs were made by size 10.5 Danner boot. There was, however, no allegation in the search warrant affidavit that Sundles owned Danner boots, and no allegation as to statistically how many men in Idaho would wear a size 10.5. The upshot of the Motion is that at the time of the issuance of the search warrant in March, 2004, there was nothing to tie Sundles to the offense.

The court file evidences substantial discovery efforts by both the government and the defense. The prosecution of this case will be very expensive for the taxpayers, and the defense will be very expensive for Sundles.

As the government pushes forward full-speed with its prosecution of Sundles, Federal Wildlife Services agents have shot and killed four wolves in the same Central Idaho region where Sundles lives. They have “shoot to kill” orders for six more wolves because of “killing or harassing cattle and sheep” (Idaho Statesman, Aug. 2, 2006). In the year 2006, 23 wolves have been lawfully killed, and agents admit “we’re finding wolves where we haven’t seen them previously…. The number of wolves being taken [killed] seems to be increasing and this year will be no exception.”

 

One wolf was shot and killed because “it approached” agents as they were putting a radio collar on a female wolf. The incident reminds some Idahoans of the incident which occurred upon the first introduction of wolves into Idaho. An agent opened the cage in which a wolf had been removed from Canada for release in Idaho, and the wolf bit him. So, the agent bringing the wolf to Idaho for protected status under the Endangered Species Act had the wolf killed.

 

So much for “protection of the specie.”


As this government killing of wolves continues, and as the stories of wolf damage to personal pets and to livestock and wolf attacks on people continue to mount, the government also seeks conviction of Tim Sundles. Ironic is too timid a term.

Meanwhile, the invectives against Sundles proliferate on the internet. One “comment” on a website designed to support wolves makes the statement “I know where you live Tim Sundles.” As the internet war of words carries on, the focus of Tim Sundles right now is on the coming trial. One of the most experienced of the federal prosecutors in Idaho will face off against one of the very best and most experienced defense attorneys. Hanging in the balance is the future of Tim Sundles who claims his innocence, the victim of the government’s desire for revenge for his shooting of an attacking wolf.

 


Fred Kelly Grant is the Litigation Chairman and Policy Director for Stewards of the Range.