Animal mistreatment charges against an Evansville coyote hunter, who officials said shot a woman’s two dogs last winter at a state wildlife area, will be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors under a judge’s order.

Dane County Circuit Judge Ellen Berz, in an order issued on Friday, agreed with prosecutors that animal mistreatment charges against Kurt Rausch, 35, can be amended from felonies to misdemeanors.

Rausch was charged in April with two counts of felony animal mistreatment for shooting two dogs that belonged to Deanna Clark, who was walking them off-leash after dark at Badfish Creek State Wildlife Area southeast of Stoughton on Jan. 22. Rausch told police he mistook the dogs for coyotes, which he was legally hunting.

Both of the dogs died.

Rausch was also charged with a misdemeanor count of negligently handling a weapon.

Felony-level animal mistreatment requires the intent to kill or disfigure an animal, while misdemeanor-level mistreatment requires negligence. Assistant District Attorney Paul Humphrey initially argued that because Rausch intended to shoot coyotes when he shot Clark’s dogs, the intent transferred to his shooting of the dogs. Humphrey later abandoned that argument and argued for reduction of the charges to misdemeanors.

Rausch’s lawyer, Michele Tjader, agreed the charges could be reduced to misdemeanors, but she sought dismissal of the charges entirely because Rausch was exercising his constitutional right to hunt.

Berz wrote that the issue of hunting as a constitutional right hadn’t been fully argued by both sides and she wouldn’t consider it at this point.

Berz also denied a motion by Tjader to dismiss the negligent firearm handling charge. Tjader had argued that Clark was a great distance from Rausch when he fired the shots at the dogs, and that it couldn’t be proven that Rausch endangered Clark, only that he could have endangered her.

Berz said that Humphrey’s argument, that it was dark and Rausch fired shots despite being unable to see where he was shooting, supports a charge of negligence to the minimal level required for probable cause.

The case will continue after Humphrey files an amended criminal complaint, which Berz ordered him to do by Dec. 31.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.