The state will start killing wolves this week to protect ranchers’ cattle
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife intends to kill wolves in the Smackout Pack in Stevens County beginning this week to protect two ranchers’ cattle grazing on public land.
The department’s intention is to kill members of the pack that has repeatedly preyed on livestock in Stevens County since 2015, said Jim Unsworth, the department’s director, in a news release.
Wildlife department staff intend to kill the wolves using a range of methods, including shooting from helicopters, shooting from the ground and trapping. There is no set number of wolves to be killed; the goal is to change their behavior, to stop them from killing cattle, said Donny Martorello, the lead in wolf policy for the state, in an interview.
The goal at this time is not to take out the entire pack. The department intends to assess results of incrementally killing the wolves before taking further action.
The decision to start killing pack members is consistent with policy set by the state’s wolf-management plan set in 2011, and in particular, policy that allows killing wolves that prey on livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month period.
That policy was developed last year by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and its 18-member Wolf Advisory Group, formed to represent the concerns of environmentalists, hunters, and livestock ranchers.
The state’s pack-removal policy has split environmental groups, with some supporting the policy and others dead set against it
“While heart-rending it is our hope that this action … will cease further livestock depredations and prevent the need for additional lethal actions, protecting the integrity and future of this pack,” the nonprofit Conservation Northwest stated in a news release. “We see this as a test of the theory that early lethal intervention can disrupt depredating behavior.”
Others were outraged.
“The environmental community has been incredibly meek when it comes to this,” said Brooks Fahy of Predator Defense, a nonprofit wildlife conservation group. “This is outrageous. This is a cost of doing business: If you have cattle on public land, you suffer the losses.”
Ranchers in Stevens County have borne the brunt of wolf recovery in Washington. Many ranching families there — with deep ties to the land, their animals and the ranching tradition — operate on slim financial margins, and have had to make unwelcome adjustments in their practices to continue ranching in what has once again become wolf country. Some ranchers have trouble even keeping their animals up in the forest because of wolf harassment, and those are lands their operations depend on.
Critics, including Fahy, argue that the rugged, remote wild lands of the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington are perfect habitat for wolves, but not suited to livestock. “It’s high time we address this. It’s going to keep happening over and over. Get the cattle off the lands,” Fahy said. “Otherwise we are just going to be killing more and more wolves. We have to start the discussion.”
Ranching has been a permitted use on national forest lands, including the Colville National Forest, for more than a century. The state’s wolf policy calls for coexistence of wolves and people, including livestock producers, on the landscape.
The Smackout pack is one of 20 wolf packs documented in Washington state by WDFW in 2016. At that time, the pack was estimated to consist of eight wolves, but it has since produced an unknown number of pups.
With four confirmed attacks on cattle since last September, the pack’s number is up, notes Don Dashiell, a member of the state’s Wolf Advisory Group and a Stevens County commissioner. “Let ’er go,” he said of the state’s removal effort. He said the state should take out half the pack now, and if that doesn’t work, keep going.
The pack’s latest depredation on livestock was discovered Tuesday, when an employee of the livestock owner found an injured calf with bite marks consistent with a wolf attack in a leased federal grazing area.
During the previous month, the rancher reported to WDFW that his employee had caught two wolves in the act of attacking livestock and the employee killed one of them.
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The killing of the wolf — a state protected species — is allowed under state law that empowers livestock owners and their employees to protect their livestock by killing up to one wolf in areas where wolves are no longer listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Smackout pack lives in the northeastern corner of the state, where wolves are not federally protected.
Wolves began their return to Washington in 2008 after being hunted, trapped and poisoned to local extinction. They are a state-protected species all over Washington — with exceptions to protect livestock — and are federally protected only in Western Washington. The state’s wolf population overall is growing at a rate of about 30 percent each year.
Martorello said both ranchers made efforts to protect their livestock using nonlethal deterrence. “Our goal is to change the pack’s behavior before the situation gets worse.”
Wolf recovery remains a very low risk to cattle ranching. Most packs in Washington do not kill livestock, even when sharing the landscape with cows and sheep, and very few cattle are documented as killed by wolves.
Since 2015, WDFW has documented that wolves have killed three calves and injured three others in the same area of Stevens County.
Most cattle are lost to accidents and illness and other causes not related to wildlife.
Mitch Friedman, executive director for Conservation Northwest, predicted more heartache as the state’s wolf population grows.
“We want a healthy wolf population and healthy wolf packs, and we don’t see a way that doesn’t involve occasional trauma like this,” Friedman said. “We have less than a handful of serious conflicts — that is a pretty good batting average. That is success even though every incident will be traumatic, for the rancher, and for the people who love wolves.”