Conflict over the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) killing a pack of wolves to protect ranchers’ cattle has boiled over to death threats and the withdrawal from the debate by a researcher who had put himself at the center of it.

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Conflict over the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) killing a pack of wolves to protect ranchers’ cattle has boiled over to death threats and the withdrawal from the debate by a researcher who had put himself at the center of it.

Rob Wielgus, associate professor and director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at School of the Environment at Washington State University, said in an email to The Seattle Times on Tuesday he would have nothing more to say about the controversy, adding in subsequent email: “My friends in WDFW have received death threats … It’s gone tooooo far.” A spokesman from WSU had no immediate comment on the situation.

In an email to The Seattle Times last week, State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said cattle producers also were receiving death threats in the wake of the controversy.

Wielgus said last week the conflict with wolves was inevitable because one of the ranchers involved had turned out his cattle on top of a known wolf den. Wielgus was challenged on that claim Monday afternoon by Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit environmental group, on Twitter, saying that it heard the cattle were turned out five miles away from the den and that the den was not in use.

Asked to respond Monday, Wielgus wrote: “I can’t understand this … of course the den was in use and I have many photos of cattle on den. What gives?” But then in a later email he wrote that Donny Martorello, the state’s wolf-policy lead, told him the cattle were turned out five miles away and moved to the den site later.

By Tuesday, Wielgus was refusing further comment. Martorello did not return phone calls, and neither did the rancher, Len McIrvin of the Diamond M Ranch near the Canadian border north of Republic, Ferry County, who grazes cattle on public land in the Colville National Forest.

Diamond M Ranch co-owner and president of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association, Justin Hedrick, wrote in a recent post on the Stevens County Cattlemen’s website that termination is the only answer to the “chronic killers” in the Profanity Peak pack.

Just the presence of wolves and cattle together doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, Martorello said last week.

Diamond M operators and another producer with cattle near the Profanity Peak pack had been taking steps recommended by the department to avoid conflict with wolves, Martorello said, from deploying range riders to picking up carcasses to avoid attracting wolves, and turning out calves when they were bigger and more mature. He praised the ranchers’ cooperation and said it was a turnaround from previous years.

“No single strategy can guarantee there won’t be depredations,” Martorello said. “These producers in this area met the expectations in our protocol.”

McIrvin was not participating with Wielgus’ ongoing study in which cattle and wolves are radio collared to track their interactions, Wielgus said last week. McIrvin also is not a signatory to the state’s voluntary agreements with ranchers to adopt certain tactics to avoid wolf conflicts or compensation agreements. The Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association opposes the WDFW agreements as ineffective, according to its Facebook page.

Nonetheless, Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association said Tuesday he sees steady progress in acceptance among ranchers in working with the department and using nonlethal methods to avoid conflict with wolves. Many producers, he noted, are successfully operating in what is once again wolf country, after the carnivores’ more than century-long absence.

The association issued a news release Tuesday praising the department for its efforts and thanking the environmental groups that have remained committed to the WDFW protocol that can authorize “lethal removal” of wolves when they kill cattle.

Wolves were trapped, poisoned and hunted out of existence in Washington in the early 1900s — in part by ranchers to keep them away from sheep and cattle. Wolves began recolonizing the state in 2008, when the first packs were confirmed in Washington, from populations in Idaho and British Columbia. There were about 90 wolves in the state as of early 2016, most of them documented in packs in northeastern Washington.

The concentration of wolves mostly in one part of the state that also is ranching country has led three times now to the state killing wolves to save livestock.

Since mid-July, WDFW has confirmed that wolves from the Profanity Peak pack have killed or injured six cattle and probably five others. The state’s policy authorizes “lethal removal” after confirming that wolves have preyed on livestock at least four times in one calendar year, or six times in two consecutive years. Livestock must have been confirmed to have been killed by wolves in at least one of the events.

To take out the Profanity Peak pack, WDFW officials beginning Aug. 5 used signals from two collared wolves in the pack to track and shoot wolves from the air by helicopter. Department staff also have set traps for the wolves, and pursued them on the ground. The work became increasingly difficult in the second week, when the wolves withdrew to a heavily timbered area of the Kettle River Range, according to the WDFW’s news release on its ongoing effort to exterminate the pack.

This is the second time the state has decided to kill a wolf pack to defend McIrvin’s cattle in particular; the last time it was the Wedge pack, in 2012. Department staff had killed six of the 11 members of the Profanity Peak wolf pack as of last Friday. Remaining as of last week were two radio-collared adults, used by the department to track the wolves, and several pups.

The pack has been in the area since at least 2014, and ranchers are aware of its location, Martorello said last week. “It is public information. They are really familiar with their allotment,” he said, “and for many producers that overlap with wolf packs, that is not an unknown factor.

“They see the tracks, they hear the howling, it’s not a situation that they have livestock and they are unaware there are wolves in the area.” The location of the collared wolves also can be downloaded by producers.

The wolf kill has divided environmental groups. Conservation Northwest has supported the department’s policy on the basis of its understanding that ranchers are holding up their end of the deal and working to avoid depredation, said Mitch Friedman, executive director. Wolf Haven International, the Humane Society of the United States, and Defenders of Wildlife issued a joint statement with Conservation Northwest on August 23 in support of the department.

But others have been outraged by the situation, and called for new policy on public lands to protect native wildlife. Predator Defense and the Center for Biological Diversity and other opponents are organizing a rally against the killing at noon Thursday outside the WDFW headquarters in Olympia.

Meanwhile the state’s Wolf Advisory Group has its regularly scheduled public meeting on wolf policy coming up Sept. 14 and 15 in North Bend.