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Fury over Wyoming wolf torture allegations sparks demands for steeper penalties, reform

Incident that’s putting the spotlight on Sublette County is being compared to some of the most infamous animal welfare fights in history.

Allegations that a Wyoming man captured, tortured and killed a wolf have sparked outrage across the world and prompted a wave of social media posts. One image published by Cowboy State Daily purports to show the man, Cody Roberts, posing for a photograph next to a wolf with its jaws taped shut. (collage by Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

During his 14 years leading the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle became familiar with how incidents uniting animal rights activists with the broader public build and then blow up, becoming international sources of outrage. 

Incidents that become common knowledge to the average person are few and far between. It happened in 2008, when star quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dogfighting ring led to his temporary ouster from the NFL and again eight years later when controversy over a Minnesota dentist killing an animal known as Cecil the lion led to unprecedented scrutiny of trophy hunting

Pacelle sees parallels to the situation unfolding now in Wyoming involving allegations of a tortured wolf

“I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve got a gut feeling for these kinds of things,” said Pacelle, who now leads the Washington, D.C.-based group Animal Wellness Action. “I think this is going to be of enormous continuing interest to the public.” 

Pacelle expects the fury to persist because of the alleged details of what happened: Daniel resident Cody Roberts ran down the wolf with a snowmobile, and struck the animal until it was so disabled he could tape its mouth shut. Then he brought the live wolf home and into the Green River Bar to show it off before taking the animal behind the establishment and shooting it. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which has shut down communication with the media, has not confirmed those details, but they were partially corroborated by a criminal citation against Roberts related to the possession of wildlife and a photo that emerged over the weekend that purported to show Roberts smiling next to a wolf with its mouth taped shut. 

A wolf in the road in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank)

Another reason Pacelle anticipates the fury won’t abate is because a similar incident could easily happen again. Arguably, most of what Roberts did is legal.

“There’s no limits on any of this, and this is what you get,” Pacelle told WyoFile. “You get a malicious person who takes advantage of permissive state policy to a degree that most sane people thought was unimaginable.” 

Incredulity that such a cruel act is punishable in Wyoming by only a $250 citation for illegal possession of warm-blooded wildlife has sparked still-building pushback and protest. (Records show Roberts has already paid the fine.) Pacelle’s group and, separately, a coalition of organizations with ties to Wyoming and the Northern Rockies have appealed to the Sublette County Attorney’s Office seeking additional animal cruelty charges be brought against Roberts. 

“Roberts committed misdemeanor and felony animal cruelty,” Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Executive Director Kristin Combs and others wrote in a letter shared publicly. “Under Wyoming law, a person who ‘[i]intentionally or knowingly, unnecessarily injure or beats an animal’ or ‘knowingly carries an animal in a manner that poses undue risk of injury or death’ commits misdemeanor cruelty to animals.”

But when Game and Fish put out a press release last week, the state agency contended that animal cruelty statutes don’t apply to predatory species (wolves in 85% of Wyoming and, throughout the state, coyotes, red fox, stray cats, jackrabbits, porcupines, raccoons and striped skunk), the implication being those species could be tortured in Wyoming without legal repercussions.

Sublette County staff attorney Clayton Melinkovich in December 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Sublette County Attorney Clayton Melinkovich isn’t so sure Game and Fish is right. 

“These [animal cruelty] statutes are very unclear all the way across,” he told WyoFile on Monday. “It does appear that they may apply.” 

It’s not only up to him, however, whether additional charges are brought against Roberts. It’s also up to Sublette County Sheriff K.C. Lehr, who would first need to initiate an investigation, a decision that would not necessarily be publicized. 

“If and when charges are filed, they become public,” Melinkovich said. “From a Rules of Professional Conduct perspective, I can’t speak [about] an investigation before it’s filed.” 

Beyond calls for more criminal charges, wildlife advocates energized by the wolf torture allegations plan to push for policy reform. It’s currently legal and routine, for example, to pursue coyotes in Wyoming by running them over with snowmobiles. It’s conduct that’s accepted enough in Sublette County that a resident once made apparel celebrating a pursuit he dubbed “chasin’ fur.” 

(Screenshot from Instagram)

Wildlife advocates like Lisa Robertson, who founded the Jackson Hole-based group Wyoming Untrapped, plan to make another run at prohibiting the tradition of running over wolves and coyotes with snowmobiles. Last time lawmakers ran a bill proposing a ban was 2019, and it went nowhere

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who represents the district where the incident took place, said that he’s expecting Gov. Mark Gordon to lead a process looking broadly at the Roberts/wolf incident — and, legally, what to do about it. 

Sommers is wary of knee-jerk legislative reactions.

“I’ve learned in my career in the Legislature that every time you try to legislate on an isolated issue, you end up making too big of a loop and catching the hind leg of the cow instead of the calf,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful, whatever law you change, that you understand the implications, but certainly the state will take a look.” 

What Cody Roberts did, Sommers said, was “wrong,” “inhumane,” “dumb” and “bad judgment.” The cattle ranching lawmaker hopes Roberts learns from his mistake, he said. 

“Having said that, Cody Roberts is a decent guy,” Sommers said. “I’ve known him his whole life.”

Rep. Albert Sommers (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Sommers has spoken with the man at the center of the controversy since the incident, and Roberts told him he’s been on the receiving end of a fury, complete with internet vigilantes wishing him harm and calling for his head.

“What he did is not acceptable,” Sommers said, “and the death threats [Roberts is getting] are also not acceptable.” 

Disapproval all around

Nearly a week and a half after KHOL Jackson Hole Community Radio first broke the news, the cacophony of condemnation for how the wolf was treated seems to keep growing. 

“I want to make my position on this absolutely clear,” Gordon, the Wyoming governor, wrote on Twitter/X. “I am outraged by this incident, just like thousands of Wyoming ranchers, farmers, sportsmen and sportswomen and others around the state.” 

Dan Ashe, a lifelong hunter and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told WyoFile in an email that the wolf’s treatment was “grotesque and disgusting.” 

“In view of this, I think every state should be reviewing their statutes to make sure that this kind of cruelty is punishable,” wrote Ashe, now president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

A broad coalition of advocates — professional and not — also continue to push back. Pleas for reform and steeper penalties are plastered all over social media feeds, regardless of the platform. A Change.org petition demanding felony charges for Roberts sprung up Saturday, and by Monday afternoon had gained more than 30,000 signatures. Essays denouncing what happened have spread. So have calls for leaks from within Game and Fish, an agency where officials have argued they cannot provide any information about what happened because of state statute. 

In the meantime, the advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies plans to pay people to procure information. An advertisement that will appear in the Pinedale Roundup this week offers $500 for videos and photos of the events involving the wolf at the Green River Bar on Feb. 29. 

The advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies is taking out this advertisement in the Pinedale Roundup. WyoFile was not compensated for republishing the graphic. (Wolves of the Rockies)

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of what really happened,” said Kim Bean, president of the Montana and Colorado-based group. “We want to know the truth about what happened that day to this animal.”


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.


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