Agents for the state are in the woods of Ferry County preparing to kill up to four gray wolves after investigators said some of the predators had injured or eaten livestock.

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Agents for the state are in the woods of Ferry County preparing to kill up to four gray wolves after investigators said some of the predators had injured or eaten livestock.

But several environmental groups are objecting to the “state-sanctioned killing.”

And the conflict shaping up along the rugged wildlife-rich stretch of country in Northeast Washington is the first real test of the state’s management of wolves since the animals began returning to the state five years ago.

State and federal wildlife officials have been keeping an eye on the wolves, members of the so-called Wedge Pack along the Canadian border, since at least mid-July. That’s when ranchers reported a cow and calf had been attacked by a wolf.

The state already has killed one wolf there, in early August, but officials said the animals continued to go after cows on a grazing allotment controlled by owners of the Diamond M ranch. The state hunters are now tracking the pack across 20,000 acres of state, private and federal land and plan to shoot or trap and kill the wolves over the next few days.

Seven environmental groups on Friday urged the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to stop the wolf kill. They said his agency had not proved beyond a doubt that the predators were responsible for the cattle deaths — or that it had exhausted other nonlethal means to keep the wolves and cows apart.

“Things are moving really fast, and that’s part of the problem,” said Jasmine Minbashian, with Conservation Northwest. “Decisions are being made to kill wolves, but there’s not a lot of good information about why that action needs to be taken. It feels like the department has been going from zero to 60 without having made a strong case for why this is necessary.”

There are eight confirmed wolf packs in Washington, with four other suspected pacts. Wolves in that area are protected under state law, but are no longer covered under the Endangered Species Act, which only protects wolves in the western two-thirds of the state.

The state last year adopted a management plan for wolves, which gives it authority to kill wolves, but only under certain conditions.

“Our goal, once we go to lethal removal, is we’re trying to reduce the size of the pack and break up the pattern of predation,” said Nate Pamplin, assistant wildlife director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Pamplin said the problem started back in 2007, when it was confirmed that a wolf had killed a cow on a ranch near the Diamond M. That rancher received a payment for his loss out of a compensation fund that’s a mix of money from the state, federal government and pro-wolf groups.

Four years later, other ranchers began complaining about wolf attacks and in April of this year, another rancher adjacent to the Diamond M put up electric fencing to keep wolves away from his calving operation.

Then this summer, conflicts grew sharper. Several cows and calves were injured by predators, and two were killed. Those carcasses showed scrapes, bites and puncture marks that investigators said were consistent with a wolf.

In a report, one investigator wrote that “the predation on a Hereford calf shows reasonable physical evidence that it was attacked and died from injuries suffered from a wolf attack.”

Diamond M owner Len McIrvin, who had several cattle attacked this summer, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

“Our field investigators are very experienced,” Pamplin said. “They all have conducted multiple depredation investigations. We’ve developed a manual for investigating livestock deaths and they followed that protocol very carefully.”

But environmentalists said the state’s wolf-management plan was more explicit, arguing that “reasonable physical evidence” wasn’t enough. The plan calls for “clear evidence.”

“It could be wolves, but it could be another predator or it’s possible it could be a lot of other things,” Minbashian said.

McIrvin has made clear in the past, she said, that his calves have been victims of other wildlife, such as cougars or bears.

She also said the state hasn’t fully explored nonlethal options, such as changes to the grazing allotment or putting more riders on the range to keep wolves and cows apart.

“My concern is they’ll spend all this time and money and break apart the pack, but it won’t solve the problem in the long run and we’ll be starting from square one again next year,” she said. “We need to be able to reduce the chance of wolves predating on livestock.”

Pamplin said state and federal officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division have been in the field trying to keep wolves away. He said they were prepared to fire guns into the air to scare off wolves, but they didn’t have the opportunity.

“It’s important to understand the topography in this area,” he said. “The area is just huge.”

He said the pack’s alpha male has a radio collar, which the state is using to track the pack. But it has no plans to kill the alpha male and the rest of the pack isn’t always nearby.

“These animals range over a very large area,” he said. “They are covering a lot of ground.”

He said, for the moment, the state isn’t considering altering its plans in response to environmentalists.

“At this point in time, we’re going to see how this operation plays out,” he said. “We’re going to see how this goes and we’ll reassess later next week.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.