Federal Court Ruling Expands Protection for Endangered Species

It will now be easier to prosecute individuals who kill endangered animals

Echo, a gray wolf shot in Utah in 2015. The shooter was not prosecuted. Photo Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

The Department of Justice has long followed a policy that severely limits the number of prosecutions for illegal killings of protected wildlife, including Mexican wolves. On Wednesday, in a case brought by WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a federal court struck down the policy, opening the door for stricter enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

Known as the "McKittrick Policy," the rule was named after Chad McKittrick, who was prosecuted in the late 1990's for shooting an endangered gray wolf in Montana. He claimed he believed he was shooting a wild dog, not an endangered wolf.

McKittrick was actually convicted, but following his case, the DOJ issued an internal memo that they would not prosecute any more cases unless they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt the killer knew the biological identity of the animal, a burden of proof that is very difficult to satisfy without a confession.

On Wednesday, the US District Court for the District of Arizona ruled that the McKittrick Policy violated the Endangered Species Act. Judge David Bury, appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled that it's up to the shooter to make sure they aren't killing a protected species, writing, "the responsibility for any mistake falls on the defendant."

For nearly the past two decades, McKittrick effectively shut down prosecutions and accountability for those who kill protected animals. Now, with the policy struck down, it's open season in the courts for wildlife-killers.

Read the court decision here.


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