COCOLALLA — Wolf People’s alleged disregard for conditions of an Idaho Department of Fish & Game agreement is coming back to bite the wolf advocacy and education enterprise.
Fish & Game advised Wolf People last month that it is withholding a commercial license that enables the company to exhibit its 23 wolves to the public, according to documents obtained by The Bonner County Daily Bee under Idaho’s public records law.
The license suspension is in effect for one year.
The state is suspending Wolf People’s license for its failure to comply with the terms of a 2012 consent agreement prohibiting physical contact with the captive wolves and a failure to put up a $50,000 bond to guarantee compliance with the agreement.
Wolf People’s counsel in the licensing action, Coeur d’Alene attorney Arthur Bistline, did not respond to a message seeking comment. Wolf People founder and principal Nancy Taylor also didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
The consent agreement was meant to resolve 43 violations lodged against Wolf People’s commercial license in 2012, records show.
The alleged violations ranged from failing to report births and deaths of wolves, transferring and transporting wolves without permission, and failing to report the escape of a wolf in 2011.
The primary aim of the agreement, however, was to prevent Wolf People’s guests from touching or being in direct contact with the captive wolves, Fish & Game records indicate. The agreement required the installation of secondary barriers to inhibit public contact with the wolves.
But an 18-page summary of findings and conclusions in the licensing action alleged a pattern of flagrant violations of the hands-off clause.
Fish & Game Conservation officer Dan Hislop and U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector Burke Newman investigated Wolf People in March 2014 after receiving a report that an 89-year-old woman was bitten on Nov. 27, 2013.
The incident was documented in a Bonner County Sheriff’s Office report and the woman’s daughter was interviewed by Newman. The woman told Newman that her mother was close to a kennel and a wolf latched onto her coat sleeve.
The woman was extracted from the garment, which was left in the kennel. The woman suffered puncture and abrasion injuries on her arm that required medical attention. Employee William Ross told the inspector he didn’t see the incident, but said the woman had to be admonished a number of times during the tour to keep her distance from the kennels because she was overly exuberant about being in close proximity with the wolves.
Three former employees and an intern were interviewed and supplied affidavits during the investigation. They stated that the public was routinely encouraged to touch the wolves and people were allowed into sally ports and kennels containing wolves.
Former employee Michael Marizo stated that Taylor began allowing the public to pet a wolf called Waka during tours in 2013. Marizo said he was fired by Taylor when he protested allowing the public to touch the wolves.
Former employee Matt Plichta stated that an adult wolf bit a child’s ear during a photo opportunity on May 26, 2013.
The investigation also brought to light the existence of an enclosure in which people were allowed to enter to photograph and touch wolves.
Social Media Trail
Investigators were supplied with nearly 20 posts to Facebook and Instagram that contained pictures of people reaching into enclosures to touch wolves. Other images showed an adult and a child petting an unrestrained wolf and a woman’s face being licked by a wolf.
Former employee Shelby Brower told investigators that she was tasked with scrubbing images of people touching Wolf People wolves off of social media networks.
Fish & Game and USDA inspected Wolf People’s facilities several times in 2014 and found secondary barriers in place. However, there was a well-worn path between the secondary fences and kennels.
Fish & Game put Wolf People on notice last June that it intended to suspend Wolf People’s commercial wildlife licenses for violating the consent agreement.
Wolf People appealed, which set the stage for an Nov. 20, 2014, evidentiary hearing in Coeur d’Alene.
Taylor testified that she was aware of Fish & Game’s primary concern for public safety, but said she was not bound to prevent physical contact with wolves because she never expressly agreed to that condition of the agreement.
Wolf People further argued that the condition was too vague.
Taylor said she has allowed the public to approach kennels only under the direct supervision of staff.
“Nancy maintained that she operated a safe facility as demonstrated by only two biting incidents in the 21-year period that she has been exhibiting wolves,” hearing officer Edward Lockwood recounted in the findings summary.
Lockwood added that Taylor discounted the allegations raised by former employees and portrayed them as disgruntled and/or incompetent.
A preliminary order to withhold Wolf People’s license was entered on Dec. 19, 2014.
“IDFG has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the respondents violated the consent agreement by permitting physical contact with the wolves by the public in the kennel areas and failure to secure a performance bond as required by law,” Lockwood wrote.
Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore adopted the findings and conclusions on Feb. 5 and held that Wolf People’s argument that the consent agreement was vague as it related to human/wolf contact had “no merit.”
Wolf People moved for Moore to reconsider his final order, but Moore declined on Feb. 26 to alter his position.
Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Trever, who represented Fish & Game during the proceedings, said Wolf People can petition a 1st District judge to review Moore’s order.
“There’s a 28-day time period to ask a district court to review the director’s decision,” Trever said.
If Wolf People does not petition for judicial review, its commercial license to exhibit wolves will expire on March 26, according to Trever.
Moore’s order does not prohibit Wolf People from applying for non-commercial, private facility permits subject to certain conditions. However, if Wolf People fails to obtain permits or license individual animals, Fish & Game would be permitted to relocate them, Trever said.