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The hunter who shot a Missoula man’s dog on the assumption it was a wolf near Lee Creek campground on Sunday committed a tragedy but probably not a crime, according to county and state law enforcement officials.

“If we have any more information, if the guy comes forward, it will be investigated further,” Missoula County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Paige Pavalone said Monday. “This is an awful accident. But if it doesn’t fit into a state statute that we can enforce, it’s very difficult to investigate. We’re more than willing to help this person. We want to figure out what happened.”

But beyond taking the initial report from dog owner Layne Spence about the shooting, the sheriff’s office did not see evidence of a crime to be investigated, Pavalone said. The report was passed on to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, whose law enforcement agents reached the same conclusion Monday.

That’s because, according to the statement Spence gave to law enforcement, the shooter tried to apologize after mistaking the brown-and-white malamute dog for a wolf. Spence told the deputy that he told the man to leave him alone and the man left.

That conversation, according to Pavalone, made it extremely difficult to show criminal intent on the part of the shooter. Without criminal intent, the accidental shooting of a domesticated dog is not a crime. It could trigger a civil lawsuit over the loss of personal property, but the sheriff’s office does not investigate civil disputes.

Spence reported the killing of his dog, Little Dave, to the sheriff’s office Sunday afternoon. Spence told a deputy he was cross-country skiing on a road above the Lee Creek campground with his three malamute dogs when a hunter shot one of them on the road. According to the deputy’s report, Spence said Little Dave was wearing a collar with a light when it was shot about 20 yards in front of him.

“The hunter resumed fire and shot approximately four more times, killing the dog,” Pavalone quoted from Spence’s statement. The deputy confirmed the dog was wearing a lighted collar and was shot at least twice, in the neck and rear leg.

Spence told the deputy the hunter approached him and said he thought the dog was a wolf, according to the report. He said the hunter asked if there was anything he could do, but Spence said he was so distraught he told the man to leave. Spence told the deputy the hunter did not make any threatening gestures toward him, and he knew the hunter was shooting at the dog.

BREAK

On Monday, FWP Warden Capt. Joe Jaquith said his agency is strictly limited to crimes involving game animals. Because the dog was a domesticated pet, it would not fall under a game warden’s jurisdiction. And even though it was allegedly shot while standing in a forest road, and hunters may not shoot game animals on a road, that law doesn’t apply to domesticated pets.

Spence told the deputy the man was wearing camouflage with a hunter orange vest, and was pulling an orange sled. He told the deputy the man had a black rifle that appeared to be semiautomatic, but “didn’t believe it was an assault rifle,” Pavalone said, quoting the report. Spence had earlier told the Missoulian the shooter was carrying “an assault weapon.”

Spence could not be reached for comment on Monday. A phone number he previously gave the Missoulian was reported out of service or disconnected.

Wolf hunting is legal in Montana for any qualified hunter with an over-the-counter license. There is no rule prohibiting the use of military-style rifles in hunting, as long as they are legal for civilian ownership.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains the Lee Creek campground for non-motorized winter use. Lolo National Forest recreation manager Al Hilshey said the area is popular with cross-country skiers who like to bring their dogs.

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.