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When the cougar trackers finally figured out it wasn’t a big cat that was wiping out Dave Dashiell’s livestock, the wolves already were on their way to killing or wounding 33 sheep.

By then even dogs, traps and specialists armed with lights, paintball guns and rubber bullets couldn’t keep the wolves and livestock apart.

“There were days when I walked down a drainage and when I came back two hours later there was a dead lamb where I walked,” Dashiell’s tearful wife, Julie, told a state wildlife panel last weekend.

And by the time a government aerial hunter aboard a helicopter unintentionally shot and killed a breeding female wolf amid the cedar, grand fir and thick underbrush of Dashiell’s Stevens County grazing land, the outrage had reached almost everyone.

Less than a decade after the state’s first wolf pack in 70 years returned to Eastern Washington’s timbered mountains and dry-grass lowlands, tempers have returned to a boil. But with the state’s wolf packs now numbering 15 and wolf populations growing 38 percent in six years, these conflicts, in some ways, are the price of success.

For the last six weeks, it seems, no side has been happy. Ranchers are furious that the state backed off in September without killing more of northeast Washington’s Huckleberry wolf pack. Conservationists are furious that the lone wolf killed after conflicts with livestock was the one government officials implied they would not target.

Tens of thousand of emails flooded the state, most opposed to killing wolves at all. One county adopted a resolution proclaiming its citizens free to kill the predators themselves. Another county declared a state of emergency.

Trappers just this weekend started trying to catch or dart a wolf so habituated to people she’s aggravating rural residents and playing with nearby sheep dogs. A legislator told wildlife officials that ranchers were getting death threats. One reported his cows being shot.

The tensions highlight a reality that wolf experts have known Washington would face eventually: The chief barrier to the return of healthy populations of Canis lupus is rarely habitat or disease, but maintaining a healthy degree of social tolerance.

“Yes, wolves are recovering, and their population is increasing and naturally dispersing,” said Nate Pamplin, who oversees the wolf program for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “We’ll do everything we can to minimize conflicts. But it will be necessary at times for the department to lethally remove wolves.”

Yet with a wildlife issue that touches hearts and pocketbooks, and salts festering wounds left by decades of land-use battles, details matter.

While wolf recovery enjoys overwhelming support in Washington, how well recovery will proceed in coming years depends in part on how all sides navigate these budding skirmishes.

Because nobody thinks they are going away.

Trouble on the rise

Aside from the Methow Valley cattle rancher who killed a wolf and tried to mail its pelt to Canada in a bloody FedEx box in 2008, Washington wolf recovery had, for the most part, been relatively smooth. Until two years ago.

In 2012, wildlife officials killed seven wolves in northeast Washington after several were caught killing cattle owned by a rancher very public about his disdain for wolves.

After a quiet grazing season in 2013, the conflicts blew in like a tornado again this summer.

When some of the sheep Dave and Julie Dashiell turned out on their private allotment on Hancock Timber land in June went missing, they attributed it at first to the cost of doing business. When more died, they thought they had a hungry cougar, but experts determined the culprit was canine.

Then the Dashiells’ losses mounted through August, and state teams sent to haze the wolves weren’t effective. The state contracted with a federal government hunter to shoot up to four younger wolves. But the terrain is so thick, dense and steep, and the helicopter had only a brief window to work, so the hunter killed a single wolf, which turned out to be the pack’s breeding female.

“It was less than ideal for us to learn that,” Pamplin said. But the state pointed to studies suggesting packs in Alaska often stay together even when a different female assumes mating duties.

With Labor Day coming and grouse season starting up, state officials decided hunting or trapping had to end.

The Dashiells moved their sheep to new rangeland, which proved difficult to find, and discovered several hundred sheep were missing. The losses may have nothing to do with wolves, but for many the link was clear.

“My husband and I came from nothing,” a clearly shaken Julie Dashiell said last weekend. “We came from nothing to watch it all go down the drain in a matter of minutes. Our losses probably total over $100,000.”

While the move and the lone wolf-kill appeared to halt livestock deaths for the moment, Eastern Washington ranchers were livid the state didn’t keep reducing the pack.

“If we’re going to have livestock and wolves on the environment, something is going to die,” Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart told the commission that oversees WDFW. “And right now it seems like that’s a one-way street.”

Len McIrvin, who lost two cows on different rangeland and was the cattleman who lost the livestock in 2012, was more blunt: “Our ancestors knew what had to happen — you get poison and you kill the wolves,” he said.

McIrvin said he’s been harassed by wolf lovers. A Ferry County sheriff’s deputy confirmed last week that a cow was shot on McIrvin’s land. But he pointed out that the cow was butchered, which made it more likely an act of someone stealing meat rather than a political protest.

As the tensions deepened during the last two months, environmentalists held a conference call with the governor, and the Dashiells’ summer conflict quickly become the center of a major dispute that has simmered since 2012:

When, precisely, should the state start killing wolves? How much did this rancher — and should others — do proactively to avoid potential conflict? And who decides, before the wolf-killing starts, whether or not ranchers’ efforts have been enough?

Wildlife officials maintain these issues are largely settled, with some steps outlined in the state’s wolf recovery plan.

And the Dashiells certainly had taken steps to avoid wolf-livestock conflicts. They helpfully put off grazing until late June, after deer and moose have given birth, which offers wolves an alternate source of food. Dashiell and his wife ran sheep using guard dogs, which can deter predators.

And he moved quickly when necessary to remove carcasses of dead livestock so they wouldn’t attract more wolves.

Dashiell, however, didn’t enter into a cooperative agreement with the state to take proactive measures, such as using range riders, which the department would help pay for.

Before wolves are killed, “we need a referee in real time that people trust who could judge whether a rancher has shown due diligence,” said Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest.

Calls to Dashiell’s cellphone were returned by Jamie Henneman, a spokeswoman for Stevens County’s local ranching group. Henneman said ranchers already are doing everything they could possibly do.

“The rancher is running a private business,” she said. “He needs to have the latitude to run his business any way he thinks is best.”

Finding what works

While the state’s wolf population still hovers in the low 50s, a dozen of the 15 packs are located in northeast Washington, with conflicts mostly stemming from just two — the Huckleberry and Profanity packs.

So some ranchers there are trying to be pragmatic.

For the last several years, John and Melva Dawson and their son Jeff, outside Colville, have used money from outside groups to hire their daughter to work as a professional range rider.

“The wolves are here to stay — haven’t got a choice about that,” said John Dawson. “We can’t just go out like a wild man and start shooting them all. So I’m trying to do whatever I can to just stay in business.”

His daughter puts in up to 12 hours a day for five months, circling the cattle, preventing contact by wolves. And when a wolf with a radio collar is near, she tracks the animal on her laptop and goes out with her four-wheeler to drive it away.

“Sometimes they just circle around and get out of sight,” Dawson said. “But we’re putting the message to them that they don’t want to eat here.”

The Dawsons haven’t lost a cow to a wolf in years, and if they did, some environmentalists say they would react without suspicion.

“If a pack started eating Dawson’s cattle, I’d say, kill those buggers,” Friedman, the environmentalist, said. “We know sometimes wolves have to go. The debate occurs when ranchers are being less than diligent or when pro-wolf people suspect anti-wolf people are manipulating them.”

No one believes range riders are the solution to every wolf conflict. The terrain in Eastern Washington is often too rough and brushy. And managing sheep can be more complex than running cattle.

But state officials said they know this corner of the state hasn’t seen its last conflict. State officials are hosting a meeting in Colville on Tuesday to talk with ranchers and others about wolves — and to encourage more people to consider precautionary steps.

“I remain very concerned about this pack coming into the next grazing season,” Pamplin, with WDFW, said of Huckleberry. “We’re going to work very hard with this rancher and others to figure out what preventive measures can be deployed. Are there other things that can be considered?”

But if conflicts resurface, some wolves again may have to go, he said, “but not at a level that hinders recovery in Washington.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or On Twitter @craigawelch