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Wyoming wolf torment case catalyzes pack of activists calling for national reform

Kristin Combs strolls down the street in Washington, D.C., midway through a day of meeting with congressional staffers to encourage legislation addressing the Wyoming wolf torture incident. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

By Mike Koshmrl

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Flanked by three fellow activists, Kristin Combs was tired, hungry and catching up on messages after hours of trying to convince congressional staffers that legislation was needed following the most infamous animal welfare case in recent Wyoming history.

The all-women activist crew, who traveled from around the country, had met with the offices of several congressional Endangered Species Act Caucus members: U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), Don Beyer (D-Virginia), Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) just that morning. They’d given the congressional staffers an earful about the now infamous torment of a wounded wolf that played out in a Sublette County drinking hole in February — and implored them to do something about it. The case sparked international outrage, especially after it was revealed the man accused of tormenting the wolf received only a $250 fine for wildlife possession.

Combs, who leads Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, was requesting legislation that would prohibit the vehicular pursuit and killing of wildlife on federal lands. The Victor, Idaho resident and her counterparts were also asking lawmakers to consider a broader bill that’s similar to the Animal Welfare Act, but for wildlife. 

“Basically we’re just asking for something that would prohibit what happened in Daniel,” Combs said on a recent Tuesday afternoon from the Library of Congress’ Madison cafeteria. 

Ideally, she said, what happened would be a felony under federal law in the future. 

Wyoming Game and Fish on Wednesday released this video evidence collected during the investigation into Cody Roberts, a Wyoming man who was fined $250 for possessing a live wolf. Game and Fish released this image as part of a public records request made by WyoFile. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

Those ideas were brought to “13 to 15” congressional offices by the time Combs left the nation’s capital. 

At Combs’ side also espousing calls for reform: Paula Ficara of the Los Angeles-based Apex Protection Project, Betsy Klein of Plan B to Save Wolves, a Sedona, Arizona outfit; and Jewel Tomasula, an Endangered Species Coalition policy advisor who lives in the D.C. area. 

Ficara explained what motivated her to travel across the country.

“It was so horrifying to such a huge number of people, it was just devastating,” she said. “It’s just time for all of us to act. We all have a responsibility to use our voices as best as we can.”

The Ficara, Klein, Combs and Tomasula quartet wasn’t the only coalition of wolf-advocating activists convened in Washington, D.C. last week. Filmmaker Ashley Avis organized a Capitol Hill rally, dubbed “A cry for the wild,” which attracted other groups with a presence in the Equality State, including Western Watersheds Project and Wyoming Untrapped. Those groups independently met with separate congressional staffers to push for policy reform on the federal level. And that’s not the end of the disparate lobbying efforts that have come about as a direct result of a Sublette County man’s decision to take a wounded wolf into a bar after running over it with a snowmobile. 

Filmmaker Ashley Avis, pictured, organized the Cry for the Wild rally in Washington, D.C. “In an inadvertent way, Cody Roberts gave the wolf community a gift,” Avis told WyoFile. (Jordan Schreiber/Courtesy)

Even though he lives in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland, Wayne Pacelle, a former CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, didn’t convene with the other activists for the rally. But he’s made progress working with one lawmaker in particular on a response bill: Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas). 

“Troy is from Wisconsin, he’s a big snowmobile guy and he’s a big gun rights guy and hunting advocate,” said Pacelle, who now works for a group called Animal Wellness Action. “I thought that he fit all the criteria.”

According to Mountain Journal writer Ted Williams, who acquired a draft of Nehls’ bill, the legislation would make it a felony to use “a motor vehicle to intentionally drive, chase, run over, kill, or take a wild animal on federal land.” Introduction of the bill was delayed after it was vetted with “well-known hunting groups and Second Amendment defenders,” the Montana outlet reported. 

But Pacelle expects its introduction in the U.S. House soon. (WyoFile was unable to reach the Texas congressman’s legislative director to confirm.) 

“When the Nehls’ bill gets dropped — hopefully next week — my guess is we’ll get hundreds of groups behind that bill,” Pacelle said. 

In the meantime, nongovernmental organizations pushing for reform are operating with a degree of independence and in cliques. Combs attributed the fracturing of the activism element to competition for fundraising dollars.

“I would say that it all comes down to money probably,” she said from the Capitol Hill cafeteria. “Wolves raise money, bottom line.” 

That’s been the case after word spread of the yearling female Wyoming wolf kept alive while suffering. In May, Texas dog trainer and social media influencer Jonas Black put on a motorcycle ride fundraising benefit he dubbed Hogs for Hope, and the ride ended in the tiny town of Daniel — where the incident occurred. The ride was a benefit for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Wolves of the Rockies, and it brought in about $130,000, Wyoming Public Media reported

A screenshot of an email from Animal Wellness Action. (Mike Koshmrl)

Pacelle’s group, Animal Wellness Action, has also played up the Wyoming incident in its emailed fundraising appeals, though he told WyoFile that he doesn’t agree that wolves are a moneymaker. 

“I never viewed [wolves] as a great fundraising issue,” Pacelle said. “In fact, when we sued in the Upper Great Lakes, we couldn’t get any of the national groups to even join the lawsuit.” 

That 2014 Humane Society lawsuit resulted in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan losing jurisdiction over their wolves, which were designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

A decade later, Pacelle pointed toward the Sublette County incident as his motivation for joining another lawsuit that challenges whether Wyoming, Montana and Idaho should have jurisdiction over their wolves. 

Meantime, there’s also legislation that would ensure the states retain control. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-Colorado) “Trust the Science Act,” which would delist wolves across their range in the Lower 48, narrowly passed the House, though it’s unlikely to succeed in the Senate. Several of the groups WyoFile interviewed were lobbying against it. 

Protesters gather for the Cry for the Wild rally in Washington, D.C. in June 2024. (Jordan Schreiber/Courtesy)

Dagny Signorelli, the Wyoming representative for Western Watersheds Project, traveled to D.C. last week and took time to meet with congressional staffers. She did so separately from Ficara, Klein, Combs and Tomasula, and pointed out there are differences in the groups’ approaches to advocacy. 

“While Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Wolves of the Rockies are taking on a collaborative approach, that isn’t the space that WWP holds,” Signorelli said of her employer, known for its hard-line tactics.

Signorelli was also one of about 150 people who attended the rally last week. All were passionate, she said, and many of the attendees had a direct life connection to wolves. 

“There’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on wolves being present,” Signorelli said. “Seeing all these people come together reinforces my belief in the power of collective action.” 

Jackson resident Lisa Robertson, who founded Wyoming Untrapped, was among the outraged activists gathered in D.C. It was her first trip to the nation’s capital, and like other Wyoming residents, she spoke to congressional staffers, attended the rally, and demonstrated near the U.S. Capitol building. 

“I was just taken by the whole spirit of it all, being there,” Robertson told WyoFile. “It was maybe the first time we’ve been [in D.C.] to speak for wolves in Wyoming, and it felt good.” 

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.