Clan of the Cougar Slayers: A Young Girl’s Family Secret

Mar 10, 2014 at 10:13 PM ET

Shelby White’s shot was heard round the world. But her family’s cold-blooded past didn’t make it into the newspaper reports.

The 11-year-old girl captured hearts and headlines last week when she reportedly whipped out a rifle and bravely gunned down a cougar sneaking up behind her brother in rural Washington. It wasn’t the first time the White family has drummed up publicity for killing exotic animals.

The pint-size slayer comes from a clan of convicted poachers that slaughtered a pair of endangered gray wolves and tried to smuggle their skins across the U.S. border a few years ago. The revelation, absent in the mainstream media accounts of the Shelby’s cougar killing, recasts the tale of the adorable deadeye and has caused the history of her kin to resurface.

“The Whites are known sons of bitches,” says Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, which has championed wolf recovery in the region. “I don’t think anyone is the least bit surprised that they remain in the news.”

Authorities first caught wind of the White clan’s illegal killings in 2008 when a FedEx employee stumbled across a blood-soaked parcel postmarked for Canada. The sender, eventually identified as Shelby’s mother, Erin White, used a bogus name and phone number and claimed the package contained a rug, according to federal prosecutors.

Instead of a rug, authorities discovered that the sodden parcel contained a wolf hide belonging to a butchered member of the Lookout Pack, the first gray wolves to repopulate Washington since the 1930s. The pack, protected under state law and the Endangered Species Act, roamed an area near the White’s 700-acre ranch in the Methow Valley, which rests of the eastern slope of the North Cascades.

Tom White, Shelby’s father, copped to killing the wolf. Federal agents later found evidence that he slayed a second member of the Lookout Pack and that Shelby’s grandfather, William White, had concocted a conspiracy to kill wolves and smuggle a wolf hide into Canada. Agents also discovered the elder White had a penchant for poaching animals, including big game he unlawfully shot in Canada and snuck back into the U.S.

In 2012, the White family pleaded guilty to a host of federal charges, including conspiracy to kill an endangered species, conspiracy to export an endangered species and unlawful importation of wildlife. William and Tom White also pleaded guilty to state charges of illegally hunting bears with dogs.

The family managed to dodge jail time, but had to fork over more than $70,000 in fines, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. William White was sentenced to six months of home detention, while his son was sentenced to three months.

As a result of their convictions, both White men also lost their hunting licenses. But that hasn’t stopped Tom White’s children from apparently picking off animals left and right, most notably the cougars that have flocked to the Methow Valley.

Shelby White was not the first of her siblings to bag one of the wildcats this winter, her grandfather William White tells Vocativ in a phone interview. Cody, her 9-year-old brother, blasted a 120-pound cougar earlier in February. Shelby’s 14-year-old brother Tanner also killed one on the family’s property that month, White says.

“Their dad has been showing the kids how to track them every weekend,” White says, adding that all three children had tags to hunt cougars. White says the wildcats have become a scourge in the area since state lawmakers banned cougar hunting with hound dogs in 1996.

Cougar sightings and encounters have been unusually high in the Methow Valley this winter, say wildlife officials, though they’ve been unable to pinpoint a precise reason. At least 10 cougars have been killed in the area alone this winter by hunters or state officials, the Methow Valley News reported.

Four of those killings have occurred on the White ranch, according to the family.

Cougars can pose a threat to livestock and sometimes humans, William White says. The big cat that Shelby White shot on Feb. 20 may have been stalking her older brother Tanner. The boy had just entered the family’s home from outside when Tom White spotted the animal in the driveway, the grandfather says.

“My son yelled, ‘Shelby, grab your gun,” says William White. The girl trained her .270-caliber rifle on the animal and gunned it down from about 10 feet away.

Wildlife officials say the animal was an emaciated female that weighed 50 pounds. It was likely starving to death. Because her father and grandfather are barred from hunting and because her brothers already bagged cougars this year, Shelby was the sole person in the family that could legally kill the wildcat, her grandfather says.

“The reason my granddaughter shot the cougar was because she was only one in our family that had a tag,” William White says. “We’re trying to follow the law as best we can.”

Still, given the White family’s history with hunting, the cougar killings raised eyebrows among Friedman and other members of Washington’s environmental community.

“It certainly smells a little funny,” Friedman says, “even if the superficial news is intriguing, compelling and lawful.”

William White brushes his family’s critics aside.

“These cougars have lost their fear of man,” he says. “It’s either them or us.”