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Steeper penalties were available in Wyoming wolf torment case

Wyoming Game and Fish fined Cody Roberts $250 after he ran down a wolf, muzzled and paraded it in a bar, but warden could have sent him to court, where a judge could have meted out jail time, $1,000 fine.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik testifies before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at a January 2023 meeting. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

The $250 fine that Cody Roberts paid for his now internationally infamous wolf torment incident was not the steepest penalty that Wyoming Game and Fish Department law enforcement could have pursued for his crime. 

The warden who cited Roberts for illegal possession of warm-blooded wildlife in March had the authority to instead compel Roberts’ appearance before a judge, where he could have faced up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail if convicted.

That revelation came Tuesday from Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik as he answered questions from fellow members of the Treatment of Predatory Animals working group, which was formed in response to the incident. Prior to Nesvik’s comments Tuesday, there was little, if any, public awareness that Game and Fish could have brought steeper punishment. The agency, instead, suggested in its public statements that it had employed all the tools legally at its disposal. 

Roberts is alleged to have run down a yearling female wolf with a snowmobile, attached a muzzle and shock collar to the injured animal and paraded it in a Daniel bar, where it was filmed and photographed, before killing it.

Amid the global fury that exploded in the wake of the event, critics complained Wyoming’s punishment was inadequate given the cruel nature of the behavior. 

In Wyoming, it is legal to take wolves, by nearly any means, without a license in predator zones. In addition, there’s a dispute over whether the state’s animal cruelty laws apply to predators like wolves — Game and Fish has taken the position that they do not. Meanwhile, the practice of running down predators using snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles is legal. Those factors, wildlife officials have said, limited their options in the Roberts case.  

When asked to explain the judiciary process of a wildlife violation during the working group meeting in Lander, Nesvik, who joined remotely via Zoom, said wardens have several options.

The most common is to issue a forfeitable citation, which means the person can either pay it or plead not guilty and dispute the matter in court. That is what happened with Roberts, who paid. 

But for a repeat offense or for a crime the warden believes is “more serious,” he or she has the ability to require a suspect go before a judge and face criminal prosecution, according to Nesvik. “In those cases … oftentimes the warden will make the decision to arrest the person, take them to jail and make them go to court, and they can post the bond and then go to court later.”

Wardens can also work with local law enforcement to press county-level charges, Nesvik said. 

The Green River Bar in Daniel pictured in April 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, a working group member, asked a pointed question about the Daniel wolf case: “Did the warden have the option under the current law that he could have required that individual to appear in court?”

“Yes,” Nesvik answered, “the warden in this case could have done that and decided not to.”

The decision to issue a forfeitable citation “was a collective decision made by the wardens and their respective supervisor,” Game and Fish Public Information Officer Breanna Ball told WyoFile in an email Wednesday. “At question in this case was the illegal possession of live wildlife, not animal cruelty or the illegal take of a wolf.”  

Roberts was cited under Wyoming statute 23-3-402. He paid the $250 ticket five days later, according to Sublette County Circuit Court records. 

Transparency and public outrage 

WyoFile did not locate any instances of Game and Fish previously asserting that the $250 fine was the maximum penalty at its disposal. The agency repeatedly cited the role of state law, which is beyond its control, in determining the penalty.  

On March 26, in response to an emailed question from KHOL reporter Emily Cohen, who first reported the incident, “What was the citation amount?” Ball replied, “A violation of the Chapter 10 regulation carries a $250 fine and misdemeanor charges.” An April 4 department press release stated that “Misdemeanor fines are set in state statute.” 

In an official Game and Fish Commission statement on April 16, the agency’s governor-appointed board stated: “We’re satisfied that every tool we have available was used, and used to the best of our ability. The Department has acted with transparency and in compliance with Wyoming law.” 

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, Magagna asked if in the Daniel incident, the warden had the discretion to require Roberts to appear in court, which would have made him subject to higher penalties.

A muzzled and leashed wolf is seen on the floor of the Green River Bar in Daniel. (Contributed)

Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King answered as Nesvik had to leave the meeting early. 

“In regards to the penalty, like Director Nesvik explained, game wardens have the discretion to either make a citation forfeitable or ‘must-appear,’” King said. “If they write the citation to be a must-appear citation, that means the defendant has to appear in court, and if they’re found guilty, then the judge can use his discretion in setting a penalty, both a fine and potential jail term. And then the judge has the latitude that’s in the penalty statute to go up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail for a low misdemeanor.”

Ball confirmed the leeway allowed to wardens. “Game and Fish law enforcement officers are given the discretion to consider the facts and circumstances before them and make a decision,” she wrote. 

Reporting indicates that Nesvik and King’s Tuesday testimony were the first admissions in a public forum that the agency could have pursued more severe punishment. 

Pushes for reform

When the wolf incident was publicized about a month after it occurred, it spread like wildfire and provoked fierce and widespread condemnation and a boycott of Wyoming. The state temporarily halted tourism promotion as a result.

The outrage that Wyoming laws did not penalize Roberts further contributed to the creation of the working group. The Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee created the group in May to examine current state penalties regarding predators. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto, a member of the working group, said that from his perspective, “this event alone probably did change the viewpoint of game wardens and how they might handle a citation from this point and going forward. It certainly would for any of our inspectors.

“Just generally speaking, I think, job done on that front,” Miyamoto said. 
The group on Tuesday agreed to draft bill language that would make it illegal to allow taken animals — regardless of whether they are predators — to suffer or live unduly before dispatching them. It did not take action on the practice of running down predators with snowmobiles, however.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.