What Is a Critter Worth?

On the value of wolves and eagles, ravens and squirrels

They were heinous crimes with lethal results. A conspiracy by father and son, planned with malice aforethought. Perpetrated over a period of years. Bodies, lots of bodies. Dozens of bodies. Followed by lies and cover-ups. And ultimately arrests and a plea bargain in the deeply troubling saga of the Sowinski family.

photo closeup of a bird of preyphoto Glenn Roze

From 2007 through 2010, Alvin Sowinski – the father in this tale – was poisoning wildlife on the family’s potato farm in northern Wisconsin. Why? “Because of the belief that predators were destroying their efforts to raise game on their property, including pheasants and deer,” Assistant US Attorney Peter Jarosz, the prosecutor in the case, told me. Authorities’ first inkling of trouble came in May 2007, when a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden discovered a dead bald eagle, dead crow, dead squirrel, and dead bobcat within 100 yards of a poison-laced deer carcass on the Sowinski property. Lab tests came back positive for Carbofuran, a pesticide Alvin Sowinski was licensed to use.

Three years later, law enforcement officers found at least nine sites on the property baited with the remains of deer and beaver, as well as processed meat. One site contained a coffee can with antifreeze. More Carbofuran was found at several sites. As Jarosz wrote in the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum: “An animal who has eaten poisoned bait will be found a certain distance from the poison depending upon the amount consumed and the size of the animal, creating distinct concentric circles of dead animals emanating from the poison.” The casualties in this “circle of death”: three eagles, three ermine, ten coyotes, a bobcat, a red squirrel, a skunk, a weasel, a hawk, a black bear, ravens, and crows.

As for the cover-up, a wildlife trail camera caught Alvin’s son, Paul, picking up the corpse of an eagle near a bait pile, throwing it into the brush, and later tossing it into a burn pile. Paul later admitted disposing of a federally protected gray wolf in an abandoned truck on the farm. Of course, authorities have no way of knowing the total wildlife death toll during that period. The casualty list could be far higher.

The Sowinskis pled guilty to a single count of illegal possession of a bald eagle. US District Judge James Peterson fined the father $30,000, fined the son $10,000, and imposed multiyear bans on their hunting, fishing, and trapping. Peterson also ordered them to pay $100,000 in restitution to the federal and state governments based on the economic value of the federally protected species they killed. And that’s where our story gets more interesting.

Restitution means returning stolen property to its rightful owners or compensating them for their economic loss. Under current law, calculating restitution requires determining the “empirical value” of an animal, regardless of whether it’s rare, iconic, or belongs to a popular species.

To me, the case of the poisoning farmers raises intriguing questions. The first question is simple: Should people who illegally kill wildlife make restitution to the public? Another federal judge, Mark Moreno of South Dakota, explained why the answer is Yes as he ordered one Charles Ross to pay $28,000 – $1,750 each for 16 hawks – in restitution for “aiding and abetting the unlawful taking of various species of hawks.”

The prosecution charged Ross with four counts involving red-tailed, Swainson’s, rough-legged, and other hawks shot by employees of his pheasant-hunting lodge, ScatterGun. He denied knowledge of what his employees were doing (none of whom were charged), but Moreno convicted him at a non-jury trial. Ross then contested the judge’s authority to require restitution. Moreno rejected Ross’s challenge, ruling that even if the government “did not have a property interest in the hawks, the government surely has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and protecting hawks in its air space as part of the public’s natural wildlife resources. This interest does not derive from ownership of the resources, but from the duty the government owes to the people.”

My second question is tougher: How can courts compute the economic value of an illegally killed animal, whether a raven, a skunk, an eagle, a squirrel, or a manatee? How much is fair? Is $1,750 per hawk reasonable?

Ed Clark, the president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia and an expert witness for the prosecution in the Wisconsin case, designed a triple-approach protocol to calculate a price for wildlife. Approach 1: From a strictly economic perspective, “What will it cost to breed that animal in captivity and get it to the state of maturity that it can take the place of one taken illegally?” Replacement means actual replacement – “restoring to the ecosystem an animal that is able to quite literally replace the one that was taken.” So an eagle chick isn’t a true replacement for a 16-year-old adult killed by a poacher. Approach 2: How much would it cost to rehabilitate an illegally injured animal so it could return to the wild? Finally, Approach 3: What’s the animal’s fair market value “where a legal market exists,” such as for falcons and other birds of prey that can legally be sold?

That leads to my third, and most difficult, question: Should the public, as “owners” of wildlife, receive restitution for less tangible losses? Losses that can’t be quantified in the same ways, perhaps losses to the human spirit, to the survival of a species? And if so, how?

Here’s another way to think of the dilemma: What’s the true value, the full value, of the same raven, the same skunk, the same eagle, the same squirrel, the same manatee? And who sets that value? Is a skunk worth money beyond a pittance for its pelt, or a squirrel for its meat?

Brett Koenecke, one of the attorneys who defended Charles Ross in the South Dakota hawk case, acknowledges that the legal profession “tries to put a dollar value on a lot of things that it really shouldn’t.” For example, human life. Koenecke points to wrongful death lawsuits in which the life of a wealthy doctor with three ex-wives and 12 children is calculated as more valuable – “even if he’s a colossal asshole” – than the life of a school janitor who was “an absolute prince of a person” but earned only $28,000 a year. The federal government reckons that a human life is worth between $7.9 million and $9.1 million – depending on the agency doing the calculation. But can such a figure possibly capture the loss of a dear friend, a son, or a wife?

In the context of critters, the question is even more vexed. Here’s how poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry thinks of it: “The usefulness of coyotes is … much harder to define than the usefulness of sheep. Coyote fur is not a likely substitute for wool, and, except as a last resort, most people don’t want to eat coyotes. The difficulty lies in the difference between what is ours and what is nature’s.”

For Ed Clark, “social valuation” is too subjective, too ambiguous. For birders, is a day “dramatically more precious” if they spot ten bald eagles rather than eight? “Those are the kinds of questions that would be very, very difficult to present in court for empirical quantification. We have no problem arguing that a bald eagle is more significant than a vulture. It’s iconic. But when it comes down to it, to raise a baby vulture and raise a baby eagle is about the same.”

Also, whose “social valuation” values should weigh the heaviest on the scales of justice? To tribes in the Pacific Northwest, the raven is an important totem, Clark notes, “but to a farmer whose feed sack is being poked open, a raven is just a feathered rat.” Or consider the wolf, which engenders both strongly positive and strongly negative opinions. To the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region, the wolf – or ma’iingan – holds deep spiritual meaning. But for many ranchers, the wolf is, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “the beast of waste and desolation.” How would such chasms of thought affect restitution? Hated or beloved, how can a wolf not have value?

Sara Vickerman, a senior director at Defenders of Wildlife, recognizes the ambiguities. “It’s too bad the only thing that counts is economic value,” she says. “It’s personal values [that are important]. Many people would say that if it’s endangered, it’s probably of greater value.” Yet certainly not all endangered species are viewed as equal. One may be a keystone of its habitat, but because it’s perceived as unattractive, it lacks the umbrella of scientific research and public attention devoted to, say, the snow leopard.

In the end, all of these questions and complications obscure an important truth: Whether the victim is a protected wolf or a common skunk, wildlife has intrinsic value. Shouldn’t those who unlawfully kill or injure an animal have to pay something, as a matter of justice?

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