Citing vague language in hunting laws, a Kittitas County judge dismissed charges Thursday against two men accused in the 2015 shooting of a popular elk known as Bullwinkle.
Lewis County resident Tod Reichert had been charged with second-degree unlawful hunting of big game in an area where hunting for branch antler bull elk is prohibited. His guide, David Perkins, had faced a charge of second-degree aiding and abetting unlawful hunting.
In a case demonstrating the complexity of hunting regulations, Reichert’s attorney argued the elk was properly shot in a game management unit that was open under the raffle permit held by his client.
Lower Kittitas County District Judge James Hurson ruled there is no specific definition of the phrase “branch antlered bull elk” in state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regulations.
The department could have written the regulations and raffle permit differently if state wildlife commissioners had wanted to prohibit hunting of elk like Bullwinkle, he said in the ruling.
Attorney Steve Hormel of Spokane, who represented Reichert, said his client was relieved by the ruling.
“I think it’s important that the community at least be informed that from the very beginning of this case we have maintained that Mr. Reichert did nothing wrong,” Hormel said by phone after the hearing.
It was not immediately clear whether the state would appeal the ruling. Deputy prosecutor Mark Sprague and chief prosecutor Greg Zempel did not return phone messages Thursday.
Bullwinkle, who was shot in a pasture outside Ellensburg, was beloved by many in the area. Thought to be about 10 years old, he often had large antlers.
His supporters contended the elk managed to live as long as he did because he stayed out of a neighboring game unit where he would have been more susceptible to hunters.
The elk was killed in December 2015 by Reichert, who has participated for years in permit auctions that help fund wildlife conservation efforts in Washington and other states. He won the hunt that led to Bullwinkle in one of those auctions.
He faced fines and the temporary loss of hunting privileges if convicted of the gross misdemeanor charge of second-degree unlawful hunting of big game.
In addition to arguing that the law allowed Bullwinkle to be shot in the area he was taken, Hormel also maintained the hunting regulations were too vague to be enforced.
The judge agreed, saying prosecutors had made a late attempt to suggest that the hunt fell outside the timeline allowed by the permit.
However, regulations state that the permit is in effect between September and December, the judge said.
Mark and Frances Chmelewski, the Ellensburg-area couple credited with naming Bullwinkle, often left feed for him on their property.
Mark Chmelewski, an Ellensburg attorney, recalled Bullwinkle as a “beautiful animal.”
He said he believed Hurson made what he thought to be an appropriate legal decision under the circumstances.
“The rule of law is what defines our country, and the death of one animal, although tragic, pales in comparison to the rule of law,” Chmelewski said.