Feds probed airborne wolf, coyote gunners in Wyoming, didn’t prosecute

The tip came in by phone. The allegation: widespread disregard for the federal law prohibiting airborne hunting by civilians. The alleged perpetrators included members of three Wyoming county predator boards, their professional contractors and others who could best be described as thrill seekers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Steve Stoinski was on the other end of the line on Dec. 2, 2019. His confidential informant, “SI-1,” told him that contracted pilots for predator management districts in Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta counties were violating the Airborne Hunting Act by flying their gunners over federal land in southwest Wyoming and killing every coyote, wolf, bobcat and mountain lion they saw, without the requisite permits. The informant, who provided the nuanced details of an insider, claimed predator board members and their families were partaking in the aerial gunning, describing the activity as some kind of recreational pursuit.

“Everybody wants to shoot a wolf from a helicopter!” SI-1 told Stoinski, according to documents from a federal law enforcement investigation report. 

Stoinski, who has since retired, declined an interview for this story. But the day after SI-1’s call, he corroborated the claims with the account of a second confidential source, SI-2, according to documents that WyoFile acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request. SI-2 told the federal special agent that the county predator boards had terminated aerial gunning contracts with Wildlife Services —  the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s predator control division — because the agency wouldn’t shoot wolves or coyotes unless it could demonstrate the canines had been killing livestock. Instead, SI-2 said, directors of the county boards who are elected by local cattlemen and woolgrowers were using their state funds to hire private contractors, who “will shoot every predator they see regardless of circumstances.” 

The second informant echoed allegations that predator board members themselves were getting in on the aerial shooting because it was “a lot of fun. 

“SI-2 said he knew for a fact that members of the Lincoln County Predator Board including the president, [redacted], has been in the helicopter to shoot animals on Forest Service land,” the investigation documents read.

Members of that board president’s family, the tipster said, had done the same. 

In the year that followed, Stoinski, Bureau of Land Management agent Tom Hill and U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Lathan Sidebottom led a sprawling investigation of purported Airborne Hunting Act violations in Wyoming. The federal team also sought investigative assistance from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The state agency declined to participate because the case involved wolves and coyotes — predator species that fall outside its jurisdiction and, with the exception of wolves inside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, enjoy no protections under state law. 

Eventually, the federal probe made major waves. Woolgrowers contend it disrupted business-as-usual aerial predator control on federal grazing allotments during lambing, and that coyotes took advantage. 

The investigation also attracted the attention of Wyoming lawmakers. The Legislature will soon consider a bill that clears a path for county boards to incorporate their plans into those of Wildlife Services, thus addressing federal agencies’ concerns related to permitting for airborne hunting. 

Wildlife Services beat lawmakers to the punch, this month agreeing to include county predator control boards’ plans on Bureau of Land Management property into its own predator damage management plan that gets filed with the BLM. 

Ultimately, Stoinski and his federal counterparts’ probe fell flat, resulting in no charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobsen was “prepared to support” prosecutions, according to documents, but federal agencies crossed wires with each other. 

Three weeks before the confidential informant’s tip was phoned in, a BLM staffer with the Rock Springs Field Office signed off on an agreement that stated the federal agency had “no objection” to aerial predator control in Sweetwater County. That memo was signed “in error,” according to BLM-Wyoming public affairs officer Courtney Whiteman. Nevertheless, it gave the appearance of consent, and investigators concluded the document made it “unlikely” federal attorneys would still support prosecution. By December 2020, three federal investigators recommended closing the case. In lieu of indictments, they sent out a batch of warning letters. 

Two months after the informant’s first call, Stoinski received a tip that a Lincoln County Predator Control District-contracted helicopter was going to be illegally hunting up the Greys River the next day. The operation was set for mid-February, in the heart of winter and four months after cattle and sheep would have been herded off their Bridger-Teton National Forest grazing allotments.

The Wyoming Department of Agriculture and Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, which oversee and provide funding for county-level predator boards, requires pilots and gunners to be licensed by the state. That permitting, however, does not grant carte-blanche consent to kill predators over federal lands. 

Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Director Amy Hendrickson hasn’t heard of predator boards deliberately flouting these requirements in recent years.

“But if that’s the case, we would not support that,” Hendrickson said. “We would never support that, and we have an expectation that the activity be done professionally and within the scope of the law.” 

Rangers with the Forest Service and BLM snowmobiled in to document the mid-winter flight, according to the investigation reports. The two officers saw and photographed a blue Robinson R-66 helicopter flying low, circling designated closed winter range north of Deadman Ranch. One officer reported hearing a gunshot coming from an airship aloft, and they documented four individuals riding snowmobiles in the same area, each with a firearm case mounted to the front of their machines. 

One of the men had a coyote strapped to the back of his snowmachine. He told the rangers he was in the area working for the Lincoln County Predator Control Board. The rangers did not inform the snowmobilers of the Airborne Hunting Act investigation, but they did cite them for snowmobile registration violations. While conversing, one of the rangers heard unintelligible chatter from an unidentified male calling one of the snowmobilers over a handheld radio. Audible in the background over the radio was the rotor clap of a helicopter. 

The Airborne Hunting Act, also known as the Shooting from Aircraft Act, is a 1971 law that prohibits shooting or harassing any animal while airborne. It’s a straightforward, single-page statute that only allows for one exception: Employees or “authorized agents” of the U.S. Government or any state who are permitted or licensed to aerial hunt for the protection of “land, water, wildlife, livestock, domesticated animals, human life or crops.” The issuance of those types of permits comes with reporting requirements. Gunners must be named, animals they can kill listed and logged, areas they can fly specified and a reason for the aerial actions stated. 

The investigators, who queried federal officials for permits and came up empty handed, didn’t believe the predator boards met the exemption.

“SI-1 said Wildlife Services is in a ‘tough spot and have kept their mouths shut’ about this illegal activity,” the law enforcement documents say.

Until recent years, Wildlife Services has performed most of the airborne predator killing in southwest Wyoming. The agency still contracts with a dozen of Wyoming’s 19 county predator control districts. But many agricultural industry stakeholders were dissatisfied with the quality of the federal government’s work. 

Jon Child, for example, Lincoln County Predator Control District’s president at the time, has “openly said he can do a better job killing predators” than the federal government, a Game and Fish warden told federal investigators, according to the documents.

The county boards’ frustrations were also partly financial, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna told WyoFile. 

“If you go back 25, 30 years, Wildlife Services was providing the major portion of funding for predator control in Wyoming,” Magagna said. “What’s been happening in the last few years is Wildlife Services has controlled the program, so to speak, but the vast majority of the funding that the program utilizes is coming from the state.” 

According to a May 2021 presentation to lawmakers, Wildlife Services pays about $1.2 million annually for predator control in Wyoming. Woolgrowers and cattlemen chip in another $1 million through predator fees, and the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board provides the largest portion of $2.7 million.  

Dissatisfaction with the federal government’s performance killing coyotes bled across jurisdictional boundaries into Sweetwater and Uinta counties, where predator boards terminated their agreements with Wildlife Services in 2020. 

Sweetwater County once occupied more Wildlife Service flight time than any Wyoming county except Fremont. Between 2014 and 2018, the agency averaged 218 hours a year in the air working Sweetwater County predator damage claims, according to federal planning documents. But two years later the Sweetwater predator board “reworked” its predator management programs, turning to private contractors instead, according to minutes from a 2020 Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board meeting. That year the Sweetwater board requested $145,000 from the Wyoming board.

After the Sweetwater predator board ended its contract with the federal agency there was “no further communication about aerial control work,” Wildlife Services State Director Mike Foster told WyoFile in an email. 

Gary Zakotnik, president of the Sweetwater predator board, said the Fish and Wildlife Service officials have since distanced themselves from Stoinski’s investigation. 

“They told us that the [warning] letter was written by a disgruntled employee that was on his way to retirement, and he had no basis to write that letter,” Zakotnik said. 

Until a warning letter landed in their mailbox two winters ago, Zakotnik’s impression was that it was legal to send private contractors up to gun coyotes over federal land.

“No one had ever told us that we couldn’t do it,” he said. 

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik also suggested that the federal agents’ investigation caught the predator-killing community off guard. A co-chair of the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, Nesvik said there’s been a “long established authority” for predator management districts and the state to lethally pursue animals on federal lands when they see fit. 

“And it’s been done forever,” Nesvik said. “I don’t see the federal government wanting to ever pursue a change to this. I just don’t see it.” 

Aerial gunning for predators remains routine business in Wyoming, a state where more than a million cattle and 300,000-plus sheep graze and where the vast majority of federal land is leased out to livestock producers. 

Wildlife Services documents killing more than 6,000 coyotes per year on average, and aerial gunning by private individuals claims another 1,300 or so. That collective mortality, the federal agency maintains, does not have much of an impact on Wyoming’s overall coyote population, judged at 86,000 animals by a 2009 study. 

Livestock producers say the ability to shoot coyotes from the sky is important to their bottom lines. 

Over a recent five-year period, Wildlife Services agents confirmed an average of 933 coyote-killed domestic sheep and cattle, primarily calves and lambs. All told, those losses cost Wyoming livestock producers about $125,000 annually, according to the federal agency’s calculations. 

Now more than ever, Magagna said, aerial gunning is a “critical” tool. Poisons have almost become a thing of the past, he said, and trapping is more restricted than ever, particularly on public lands. 

Hendrickson, with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, agreed. 

“A 100-pound lamb goes for, let’s just say $3 a pound — that’s $300,” Hendrickson said. “And if you have coyotes that come in and kill 20 of them, that’s a lot of money.” 

“Predator management is integral,” she added, “and in some of these areas, it’s not efficient or effective to try to do it any way other than aerial simply because of the countryside you’re dealing with.” 

Southwest Wyoming sheep ranchers took a hit, Hendrickson said, after the federal investigators’ written warning grounded private aerial gunners who would have been working BLM allotments. 

Partly because of the timing, the issue was “hot,” Magagna said. 

“It occurred at the primary time of the year for predator control,” he said. “People were getting ready to be lambing out on the open ranges.” 

One year and three weeks after Stoinski first took the tipster’s phone call, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and BLM’s law enforcement offices issued the warning letters to the predator boards and their contracted pilots. 

“Specifically, the evidence collected during the investigation documents individuals that identified themselves as employees of Lincoln County Predator Management District killing predatory animals on federal lands with the aid of an aircraft,” their letter to the Lincoln County district said.

The agents warned that future unsanctioned flights will be investigated, and violations referred to the U.S. attorney’s office. 

The predator boards took the threats seriously. 

“Since the receipt of your warning letters, we have suspended all county-sponsored aerial activities on federal lands until we can resolve this issue with the affected land managers,” the three county predator board presidents wrote. 

The Lincoln, Sweetwater and Uinta predator board officials defended their actions, writing that, to the best of their knowledge, they were “in full compliance” with aerial hunting requirements imposed by the state of Wyoming. Participating pilots and gunners were licensed by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, they wrote, and counties were reporting their lethal actions to Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board, which rounds it all up into an annual report. 

“It is our understanding that the state then compiles the information collected and submits an annual report to the Department of the Interior as required in the Airborne Hunting Act,” their letter said. 

But the county boards mistook state consent for clearance from the federal agencies. The authorization to operate over federal lands evaporated when they ended or scaled back their contracts with Wildlife Services, the predator districts would soon learn.

Federal land managers who administer the disputed gunning grounds told the predator boards as much in a letter one month later.  

“You have noted that the counties and their agents carrying out [aerial gunning] activities were acting in accordance with Wyoming state statutes,” Lori Armstrong, a former BLM Deputy State Director, wrote to the predator boards. “Wyoming state statutes cannot, of themselves, authorize [aerial gunning] activities on public lands.” 

BLM policies, Armstrong wrote, are explicit about which entities are authorized to conduct coyote sorties over bureau lands: Wildlife Services, or state and local organizations that have contractual agreements with that agency. She disowned the BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office agreement that purported to condone coyote gunning in Sweetwater County — the memo that killed the federal agents’ case.  

“Local BLM policies must be consistent with national policy,” Armstrong wrote. 

Two months later, after Stoinski’s retirement, a supervisory U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent followed up in writing to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. That agent, Dan Coil, told the predator boards that his agency recognizes there’s a provision in the Airborne Hunting Act allowing permitted parties to partake in aerial culls. But that exemption, he added, does not supersede or authorize the violation of other laws and agency policies. 

“Because your question concerned hunting on BLM and USFS land, any hunting — whether airborne or ground-based — on those lands must comply with regulations or permits issued under authority of those agencies’ laws,” Coil wrote. 

The federal special agent cited former BLM Deputy State Director Armstrong’s letter, which informed the predator boards that they were lacking a contractual agreement with Wildlife Services. 

Wildlife Services and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture recently took steps to remedy this dilemma. 

On Jan. 13, the state director at Wildlife Services, Foster, signed off on a new cooperative agreement that pledges the federal agency will annually include county predator district actions on bureau property in its own annual work plan with the BLM. 

Responding to emailed questions from WyoFile, Foster said Wildlife Services played no role in resolving the disagreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the predator boards.

“Wildlife Services was not party to these discussions,” Foster wrote, “neither do we have regulatory oversight regarding what happens on public lands.” 

Hendrickson, at the Wool Growers Association, said she was engaged in discussions around the agreement, which she described as a joint conversation between Wildlife Services, the BLM and Wyoming Department of Agriculture. 

Some involved parties have moved on. “I don’t think at this point any more publicity on the subject is probably a good thing,” said Zakotnik, the Sweetwater County Predatory Animal Board president. “We’ve kind of gone back to predator work as we were before.”