Recent legal battles over the kill orders have strained relationships and could threaten the common ground brokered among some conservationists, ranchers and government officials over Washington's wolves.

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A Thurston County Superior Court judge denied a request for a restraining order against the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife over a kill order the agency issued for a pack of wolves in Ferry County.

The agency’s director, Kelly Susewind, on Wednesday approved an order to kill wolves from a new pack responsible for recent injuries and the death of a calf in the Kettle River Range. The judge’s court order will allow the agency to proceed with killing one or more wolves.

Recent legal battles over the kill orders have strained relationships and could threaten the common ground brokered among some conservationists, ranchers and government officials over Washington’s wolves.

“That wolf management plan. It didn’t happen overnight. It took compromise on both sides to come to something everyone could live with but no one liked,” said Ferry County Sheriff Ray Maycumber, whose office has involved itself in wolf depredation investigations. Maycumber, who sees his job as “peacemaker” in the debate over wolves, said the legal fighting adds a level of frustration.” 

“I don’t want to call it hopelessness, but if there’s a feeling between hopelessness and frustration, that’s what I would describe,” the sheriff said.

The wolf pack WDFW plans to target has preyed on cattle six times this month on federal grazing lands, killing one calf and injuring five others, according to WDFW. The pack, which officials are now calling the Old Profanity Territory wolf pack, was first identified by the department in May. The agency believes the pack is made up of three or four adult wolves and two pups. WDFW biologists were able to collar the new pack’s adult male earlier this summer. In recent years, WDFW has killed members of two other wolf packs in the same area.

A representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that has been challenging WDFW’s wolf killings in court, said the organization was disappointed by the ruling but believed it would ultimately prevail in ongoing legal action that challenges the agency’s guidelines on when it can kill wolves.

The agency “ignores science” and causes “long-term environmental harm,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a news release.

The center was one of two conservation organizations that filed a lawsuit over WDFW’s decision to kill a member of the Togo wolf pack. A judge in that case granted a restraining order, halting the killing. Later, a different judge denied a preliminary injunction and a WDFW sharpshooter killed the wolf from a helicopter.

The 2017 wolf-livestock protocols require ranchers to demonstrate they’ve tried to prevent wolves from targeting cattle with at least two nonlethal methods before the agency resorts to killing the canines. The protocols say that wolves must attack cattle three times during 30 days, or four times in 10 months, before the state will consider “lethal action.”

In this case, wolves preyed upon five calves between Sept. 5 and Sept. 7, killing one. Another incident was confirmed later.

When wolves are suspected of killing cattle, a two-person WDFW team will investigate, treating the site of the incident as a “crime scene,” according to the protocols. If it’s clear wolves are behind the killing of cattle, nonlethal methods have been attempted, and depredations are considered “likely to continue,” WDFW’s policy is to “change pack behavior” by “incremental removal,” which includes the options of trapping wolves, shooting them from a helicopter or from the ground.

Wolves began a rapid return to Washington state in 2008, after being trapped, poisoned and hunted to local extinction here in the early 1900s. Their numbers have grown from just a handful in 2008 to at least 122 today, according to WDFW’s latest count. Most live in rural, rugged areas of northeast Washington.

Wolves’ return to Washington has stirred controversy and even death threats as ranchers, conservationists, scientists and politicians spar over how to handle conflicts. WDFW has approved the killing of several wolf packs in recent years. The state has killed 18 wolves and eliminated three entire packs since 2012, according to the conservation groups.