ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Bullwinkle was as smart as he was big. The most photographed bull elk in Kittitas County, if not the state of Washington, he had figured out as long as he stayed in that idyllic pastureland where people fed him and treated him like royalty, nobody would shoot him with anything other than a camera.
The state’s hunting laws agreed with him.
Yet in December a hunter shot and killed him.
The famous prey
If Bullwinkle wasn’t the most famous Rocky Mountain elk in Kittitas County, that’s only because he spent so much of his time in the flatlands northeast of Ellensburg known to old-timers and its inhabitants as the Fairview District.
In that sprawling sanctuary of alfalfa fields, cattle ranches and country estates, the animal king was clearly Bullwinkle — or Ranger, or Chief Joe, or any of the other monikers by which people referred to the massive bull elk.
Not only was he arguably the biggest bull elk in the Kittitas Valley — some years he was an 8-by-8, meaning eight points on each antler — his almost docile nature gave him what Craig Schnebly called “top billing at the free-range zoo.”
“He kind of had the run of the place,” said Schnebly, on whose property Bullwinkle lounged so often that some locals dubbed him “the Schnebly bull.”
“He’d lay in the middle of an alfalfa field and wouldn’t even bother getting up; he’d feed laying down. People would come by and take pictures. Some people would come by on a daily basis. He was famous.”
“He was a big-time local celebrity,” echoed Brad Duncan. “You could get right up close to him. He lived in people’s yards. He would jump the fence and lay 10 feet from people’s homes.
“He was the tamest bull I’ve ever been around, and I’ve hunted for 40 years. There’s people who hand-fed him.”
Bullwinkle often fed at the home of Mark and Frances Chmelewski, the couple who gave him that name.
“He would come into our yard and eat apples off our tree, and we’d sit and watch, just meters from him,” Mark Chmelewski said.
“Every year we’d say a little prayer that Bullwinkle would survive the hunting season because he was just such a beautiful, majestic animal.”
Bullwinkle made it through so many hunting seasons — he was believed to be pushing 10 years old — primarily because his chosen haunts were within a game management unit (Ellensburg 334) that’s closed to hunting for branch-antler bulls.
Which is why the man who shot him there, according to state wildlife enforcement officers, is facing the possibility of fines and a two-year suspension of his hunting privileges.
The easy kill
The man charged with killing the big bull is Tod Reichert, 76, of Salkum, a little town along U.S. Highway 12 west of Mossyrock.
He’s charged with second-degree unlawful hunting of big game, a gross misdemeanor, and — having waived his right to an arraignment — is scheduled for a pretrial hearing in Lower Kittitas District Court on May 31.
Specifics of the case are difficult to corral. Multiple attempts to contact Reichert, including a telephone message left with a family member, were unsuccessful. His Spokane-based attorney, Steve Hormel, declined to comment, and state wildlife officials are saving most of their legal ammunition for the courtroom.
But according to enforcement officials, Reichert shot the elk in a field near the intersection of Gilbert and Grindrod roads. That location is in the Ellensburg game management unit (GMU 334), roughly 11/4 miles south of the irrigation canal separating that unit from the Naneum 328 unit.
Hunting of branch-antler elk is legal in the 328, while the 334 is open only for spike-only or antlerless elk — even for holders of special any-bull permits, say state Fish and Wildlife officials.
After shooting the elk, Reichert and a small group of Ellensburg residents who had helped him locate the bull loaded it into a truck. According to eyewitnesses, the elk was then driven to a private field in the 328 unit and field-dressed.
Why would locals help an outside hunter shoot a local legend?
In many trophy-bull hunts for which the hunter has already paid many thousands of dollars for the permit, it’s typical for the hunter to also pay finders’ fees to those who can lead him to a suitable trophy and, if necessary, a fee to the landowner where the bull is hunted.
According to several sources, that’s what happened here.
The wealthy hunter
State wildlife departments and their hunting/conservation partners such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) depend on people like Tod Lyle Reichert for donations made through various fundraisers.
The self-made millionaire transformed a minuscule shake mill operation in the 1970s into one of the country’s premier cedar fencing producers, with more than 26 million feet of Reichert cedar fencing sold annually by distributors from Washington to Louisiana.
That success has enabled Reichert to pursue his passion for hunting trophy elk, while also becoming a prolific financial supporter of RMEF’s elk habitat programs and state wildlife operations.
Four times since 2007, Reichert has purchased the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s special eastside elk auction tag, paying $47,000 (twice), $50,000 and, for the yet-unused 2016 tag, $75,000.
In 2015 alone, he put more than $60,000 into WDFW coffers. In addition to his $50,000 auction eastside elk tag, he spent more than $12,000 on big-game permit raffle tickets, one of which won the tag he used to hunt Bullwinkle. That tag allowed him to take any bull elk in any 300 or 500 series GMU open to elk hunting, providing it’s taken in compliance with rules for that game management unit.
Reichert has also purchased auction tags and harvested trophy-book elk in other states, notably New Mexico and Pennsylvania. The elk he took in New Mexico in 2008, in fact, still ranks as Safari Club International’s world record (437 5/8 inches) for a typical Rocky Mountain elk.
“People have different and interesting views about these (auction) tags,” said Mark Holyoak, RMEF’s national communications director. “Some people think they shouldn’t exist at all.
“But these tags were created by the states specifically to raise money for conservation. ... The money goes directly for conservation efforts, to the state agencies, for them to help out with wildlife and habitat and all sorts of things.”
This is worth noting: In the 2007 RMEF banquet at which he bought that New Mexico tag, Reichert had the top bid at $35,000, and it was becoming evident no one else would be bidding. But when the auctioneer called for a $40,000 bid, Reichert raised his hand, bumping his own bid.
Outside the lines
This isn’t the first time a Reichert hunt has come under legal scrutiny.
In 2007, he bought the state’s eastside elk auction tag and, that December, killed a bull elk in the Blue Mountains. But the day before the hunt, his Oregon-based guide, Jon Wick, used a helicopter to spot the elk — illegal in Washington — and the hunt took place outside the area in which the U.S. Forest Service had authorized Wick to operate.
In 2011, a federal grand jury indicted Wick and Reichert on felony and misdemeanor offenses related to the hunt. A year later, as part of a plea deal, Reichert pleaded guilty to interfering with and providing false information to a Forest Service officer, both class B misdemeanors. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to two years of probation, during which he wasn’t to hunt on national forest lands.
That case didn’t affect Reichert’s hunting privileges, though. His Kittitas County case just might, although it may drag out long enough that he’ll be able to fill the tags on his next two big-ticket auction purchases — including the 2016 Washington eastside elk, for which he paid $75,000.
On the heels of the 2012 federal case over his Blue Mountains elk, Reichert’s killing of Bullwinkle has become a hot topic on online hunting forums. Many posters are incensed, decrying a lack of hunting ethics. Other attitudes are more like this one, quoted here just as written:
“A guy who pays 60k for an elk tag should be able to shoot the elk he wants at pike place market if needed.”
But many people in the Fairview District beg to differ.
“That’s not what hunting is all about. You don’t go shoot a bull in a fricking pasture,” Brad Duncan said. “Even my 12-year-old daughter knew better. She’s been hunting for three years, and even she knew.
“‘That’s not right, Dad.’”
• This story has been corrected to clarify the more restrictive nature of the hunting tag used.