AS a wildlife scientist involved in endangered species recovery and a student of the interactions between humans and animals that many despise, I have closely tracked the recent removal of the Wedge wolf pack from Northeast Washington. As citizens and agencies proffer explanations, there has been little rationale retrospection. I offer one in the hopes of changing how future human-wolf conflicts will be resolved.
The removal of the Wedge pack was an avoidable response to disingenuous ranchers who took advantage of the unwillingness of conservation agencies and advocacy groups to spend political capital. Len McIrvin, owner of the ranch where wolves had killed cattle, refused to implement the many successful predator deterrents used by his fellow ranchers, for example, range riders, guard dogs, electric corrals and electrified flags, also known as turbo flaggery.
Conservation agencies rightfully offer financial incentives to those who willingly use deterrents, but they do not penalize those who choose not to. This is reasonable for a rancher grazing on private land, but when public resources are used — as in the case of McIrvin’s cattle grazing in the Colville National Forest — then consequences should be stipulated and penalties should be levied.
By spending heavily to satisfy a single citizen, our agencies squandered public funds, devalued the sacrifices made by the many well-behaving ranchers who take proper precautions to limit wolf-cattle interaction from the outset, and disregarded the majority of U.S. and Washington citizens who support wolves and the economic windfall for hunters and wildlife viewers alike. Conservation-advocacy groups have publicly condoned the use of lethal force and now are stinging from its application.
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In hindsight they call for stronger proactive measures, but their early willingness to back a strategy that assumed killing wolves was necessary to their survival has set back wolf recovery and allowed members to shirk their responsibility as a voice for nature, first.
What can we do now to avoid future pack removals? Broadening ownership of our wolves and their interaction with our neighbors is an important start.
The state could help by creating a wolf license plate or an annual “wolf stamp” that would allow all Washingtonians to bear the costs of sustaining wolves. Revenues could fund innovations that strengthen local economies dependent upon wolves. These might include rancher investments in herd safety or, for those wishing to diversify their income streams, startup costs for wolf tourism businesses.
Tailoring proven tactics such as mimicking the dolphin-safe tuna campaign to certify “wolf-safe beef” could aid ranchers who act responsibly by allowing consumers to reward their sacrifice. Local economies would grow as independent assessors certify herds that coexist with wolves, ranchers cooperate to develop marketing strategies, and local processors prepare and ship the meat to our urban marketplace. Beef that was raised in conflict with wolves would garner the rancher less at market.
If grazing fees were also linked to stewardship, it would cost more to produce. Federal agencies could hike grazing fees for ranchers who choose not to employ wolf deterrents.
As we learn to be better wolf neighbors, we should also teach wolves to be better human neighbors. Wolves are smart and living in a pack means they can learn from one another, but dead wolves don’t learn. Teaching wolves that cows and sheep taste bad is possible by tainting meat with sickening agents, a tactic proven effective at shifting the diets of other predators.
For centuries, we Westerners have waged war on our wild dogs, but we seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Let us begin to learn.
Our ecosystems function poorly, our cultural identity narrows and our economy suffers when we refuse to tolerate wolves. Our future holds more conflicts with wildlife, but by learning to live with other forms of life, even those our ancestors reviled, we not only improve our ecosystem’s resilience, we show our uniqueness as a species.
John M. Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of “Gifts of the Crow,” which addresses nonlethal animal control.