Environmental groups are taking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to court over a policy that literally allows individuals to get away with murder when it comes to killing endangered species.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 to protect species that are in danger of disappearing. While civil penalties are less, criminal violations of the ESA can result in fines of up to $50,000, jail time or both. Unfortunately there’s a significant loophole, known as the McKittrick policy, that allows hunters to get away with killing imperiled wildlife by claiming they didn’t know the animals they killed were endangered.
The policy came into play after Chad McKittrick shot and killed one of the first restored wolves in the Northern Rockies in 1995 and argued that he was innocent because he thought it was a wild dog. He was convicted of poaching, given a six-month sentence and lost a subsequent appeal, but the policy was put in place following the incident in 1998.
Under this policy, prosecutors must prove that the individual in question knew what, or whom, they were killing. The two groups suing, WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, contend that this policy has led to a systemic failure to prosecute violators.
If all anyone has to do is claim they thought a wolf was a coyote, or a grizzly was a black bear, among other cases of “mistaken identity,” there’s not much anyone can do to prove otherwise …or very much point to having serious consequences for violating the ESA.
“The DOJ has lost its moral compass and abdicated its duties to protect America’s greatest national treasures: Mexican wolves, grizzly bears, and California condors,” said Wendy Keefover, Director, Carnivore Protection Program for WildEarth Guardians. “The policy means that people can commit the most well-planned assassinations of America’s most endangered animals and then literally get away with murder.”
The policy also raised concern from wildlife managers. In a 2000 memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an official stated that, “As soon as word about this policy gets around the west the ability for the average person to distinguish a grizzly bear from a black bear or a wolf from a coyote will decline sharply. Under this policy a hen mallard is afforded more protection than any of the animals listed as endangered.”
For Mexican gray wolves, this policy has been a complete disaster with illegal shooting being the highest cause of death for this species. Since it has gone into effect, 48 Mexican gray wolves have been illegally killed, but according to WildEarth Guardians, only two cases have resulted in federal prosecution. As of now, there are estimated to be 75 in New Mexico and Arizona, with just three breeding pairs.
The groups now hope to get this policy invalidated.
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