Idaho Fish and Game Report Says Trapped Black Wolf Not Shot, “Just Nicked”

Trappergate Update: Conservation Activists Encouraged. “Our Moment is Coming,” They Say

Why me, Bill” asked “Elizabeth.”. “Why should anyone care about what I think the Bransford photos accomplished?" I’m just a wee, grubby misfit. I don’t even have one fancy title to my name.” Elizabeth (not her real name) lives in northern Idaho. She grasped that the www.Trapperman.com photos showing smiling hunter Josh Bransford with a trapped black wolf standing in blood-drenched snow in the background would soon disappear. She saved the images and through the North Idaho Wolf Alliance network, got the photographs to Earth Island Journal in late March (Read the original story, Wolf Torture and Execution Continues in the Northern Rockies).

Trapperman.comJosh Bransford with the black wolf he trapped.

A light has been released, a light beyond my expectations,” Elizabeth says. “We have many new eyes peering into the gap between the ethical treatment of wildlife and legality in the state of Idaho… Josh Bransford is the face of but one man being used to render wolves functionally extinct region-wide, and since his disturbing actions are legal, officials won’t budge unless we the people demand change.”

Despite the worldwide publicity, the Bransford pictures got little attention in the  Idaho news media for the first two weeks after the story’s release. Bill Ross, a wolf handler at the Wolf People sanctuary in Cocolalla, Idaho, observed, “I don’t think the story’s really gotten off the ground yet. It’s not circulated among the general public here.” Ross fears that Bransford and the black wolf are “today’s news” and that “a week from now it won’t be news anymore.” Still, Ross soldiers on. “It can be discouraging, but if we don’t continue to fight, obviously there won’t be a fight,” he explains.

But Ross and the other Northern Rocky advocates got unexpected help on April 12, when the Idaho Fish and Game Service released its official report on Bransford’s “Wolf Trapping in the Red River area.”  (Bransford is a Nez Perce National Forest employee.)

photo of a man in the foreground kneeling, behind him a wolf is chained by a trap, a circle of bloodstained snow beneathThe photo in question.

While the photograph clearly shows the black wolf standing in a large blood-stained pool of snow, fish and game officials concluded the blood came from “nicks,” not bullets. Moreover, the report says: “the Forest Service officer and the deputy did not observe anyone shoot at the wolf and did not receive any indication that any of the individuals they contacted shot at the wolf.” Thus, since no law enforcement officer saw the wolf shot, and no one confessed to the shooting, then the wolf simply suffered “nicks” to its lower hind legs, and the nicks bled.

The report ignores Bransford’s own blog account about the incident on Trapperman: “I got a call on Sunday morning from a FS [Forrest Service] cop that I know. He said that You got one and you better get up here as there was a crowd forming. Several guys had stopped and taken a shot at him already! Lucky they were not real good shots.”   Bransford, writing under the name “Pinching,” explains that once on the scene he talked to the boys who fired: “I was not mad, and when the boys told me the story I kind of chuckled... I would have done the same I think. They also did go out of there (sic) way to make sure I was called, and they didn’t hide from what they were doing.”  

There’s also a serious problem between the report’s conclusion and the pictures of the black wolf. Gary MacFarlane, Ecosystem Defense Director, of northern Idaho’s Friends of the Clearwater, contends that only two possible circumstances could lead to a wolf’s losing so much blood. One, the wolf could be shot. Second, the wolf could have tried to chew off its trapped leg.  But look at the photo of the wolf’s paw caught in Bransford’s trap. “It doesn’t look like the animal is trying to chew off its leg,” he says. “Somebody is lying. There’s a contradiction in the accounts.”

photo of a wolf paw caught in a metal trap, bloody snow beneathThe wolf's paw in caught in Bransford's trap.

But who is lying, and why?  Why would Josh Bransford, aka “Pinching,” lie in his Trapperman blog post when he’s the hero of his own story, and no controversy had yet broken out? “It certainly seems like a cover-up,” MacFarlane concludes. “They’re trying to shove this under the rug. The hole Idaho Fish and Game’s digging keeps getting bigger and deeper. The longer this goes on, the better. Our movement’s moment for vindication is coming.”

Unraveling a cover-up by the Idaho Fish and Game, and perhaps other parties (the US Forest Service is conducting its own review in Washington, D.C.) might open new possibilities for the conservation movement. The photographs have already inflamed parts of the public. Wendy Keefover, Carnivore Protection Director for the WildEarth Guardians, told me: “Bill, when your blog came out, it generated international attention. The amount of attention that wolf generated shows that people can empathize with the suffering of another being. It created outrage.”  Michael Robinson from the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) concurs. “ When people see unspeakable cruelty practiced, they can rise up and government can be responsive,” he says.

Clearly the photos and Idaho’s bizarre report show the limits of state management. “The state of Idaho can’t be trusted to manage an iconic predator like the wolf. The western states aren’t sensitive to wild animals and they’ve regressed in the last 25 years. The Endangered Species Act is necessary,” says Gary MacFarlane. Michael Robinson adds: “People pick up a lot of the clues for normalcy and decency from the top levels of institutions. The Bransford incident and Idaho’s new report give us a window into how the state of Idaho’s extreme rhetoric has been transformed into action. It shows how the ESA [Endangered Species Act] and federal management really is necessary to have a broad recovery of species.”  

The Center for Biological Diversity is currently deliberating whether to appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision upholding the 2011 Congressional delisting of wolves.  CBD activists are also investigating whether to begin a national political campaign to repeal the delisting by mobilizing public support for wild animals. In Robinson’s assessment: “We’re under no illusions that the current Congress will repeal its own act, but we’ll see what future Congresses look like. Congress can respond if the public really pushes.”

Read James William Gibson’s writings at jameswilliamgibson.com

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