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Judge granted biologist immunity

By WHITNEY ROYSTER Star-Tribune correspondent

JACKSON -- A U.S. District Court judge ruled in a trespassing case last week that a federal wolf biologist's work should be protected under "sovereign immunity" because the agent was simply doing his job.

Judge Alan Johnson surprised wolf foes around the state June 30 when he agreed with defense attorneys that U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Jimenez should be protected from prosecution under federal immunity.

"I find that federal immunity applies in this case to bar prosecution in the state court for trespass and littering," Johnson said when he dismissed the case orally from the bench.

Michael Johnson, representing Jimenez, argued the Wyoming wolf coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service was "performing his duties pursuant to the Endangered Species Act" and "his actions were necessary and proper and he made all reasonable effort to protect private property," Johnson said Wednesday.

"The judge correctly found that he was entitled to sovereign immunity because he was acting pursuant to federal law and was acting within his scope of employment as a Fish and Wildlife biologist whose mandate was to protect and control wolves under the wolf recovery program," Johnson said. "Mike Jimenez is not a rogue federal employee. He does understand the importance of protecting citizens."

Johnson also said Jimenez's work at collaring wolves was in an effort to protect citizens and livestock by tracking the animals.

Bryan Skoric, the prosecuting attorney from Cody, said he respects the judge's decision.

"But it doesn't mean I agree with it," Skoric said.

Skoric argued for "equal application," meaning it doesn't matter who is trespassing on private land -- they should be penalized for it.

Skoric said he was reviewing the court transcripts to determine if he will appeal the decision.

The case came to Johnson's court last week after Johnson himself moved it out of Park County, where it was filed, to district court in Cheyenne.

The first motion in the court case was to move the case back to Park County, which Johnson denied.

The second motion was to dismiss the criminal proceedings against the two men, and that motion was granted.

Rancher Randy Kruger filed the suit for trespassing and littering after he found Jimenez and Wes Livingston, a private contractor out of Cody, on his private land near Meeteetse Feb. 14. The men had four tranquilized wolves they were collaring because of depredation problems in the area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Jimenez and Livingston inadvertently landed on the private land while working to place radio tracking collars on the wolves from the Washakie Pack. Fish and Wildlife regional director Ralph Morganweck apologized to the landowner in March.

Among Cowboy State conspiracy theorists, the trespass was rumored to be proof that the federal government was accelerating natural wolf dispersal by distributing wolves with helicopters. The Fish and Wildlife Service denied such accusations.