SEATTLE — Taking aim from a helicopter flying over northeastern Washington state, a marksman last month killed the alpha male of a wolf pack that had repeatedly attacked a rancher’s cattle. The shooting put an end to the so-called Wedge pack, but it did little to quell the controversy over wolves in the state.
The issue has been so explosive that state wildlife officials received death threats and the head of the Fish and Wildlife Commission warned the public at a recent hearing in Olympia on wolves that uniformed and undercover officers were in the room ready to act.
More conflicts between wolves and livestock are inevitable, officials say, as wolves in Washington recover, growing in number more quickly than expected. The animals numbered a handful in 2008, and are now estimated at between 80 and 100.
“What are we going to do so we don’t have this again?” asked Steve Pozzanghera, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional director.
He said officials are trying to be proactive to prevent the need to kill wolves in the future. They plan to collar more wolves this winter to keep better track of them. They plan to ask the Legislature to beef up money to compensate livestock owners whose animals are killed by wolves. And they’re urging livestock operators to sign agreements with the state to share the cost of using a broad range of non-lethal measures to prevent livestock-wolf conflicts.
So far, only one livestock owner has signed an agreement, with four to six others in the hopper — underscoring the challenges the agency faces as it tries to recover the endangered native species while encouraging social tolerance of the wolves by minimizing livestock losses.
“We understand there is some resistance out there,” said Pozzanghera, but the agency is committed to working with ranchers and cattlemen.
“The whole situation is really tragic, most of all because it could have been avoided,” said Jasmine Minbashian, of the nonprofit Conservation Northwest, which supported the decision in the end to kill the wolf pack because the animals had become reliant on livestock.
“If you remove the pack without changing something on the ground, this situation is bound to repeat itself,” she said.
The Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association is urging its roughly 50 members not to sign those agreements. It wants the commission to remove gray wolves from the state endangered list in Eastern Washington in the near future.
“Our guys are willing to use these nonlethal methods ... The problem is these methods are not always effective,” said the group’s spokeswoman Jamie Henneman, noting the agreements address only symptoms. “The illness happens to be that we’re oversaturated with wolves.”
Grey wolves are protected as an endangered species throughout Washington state. The animals are federally listed as endangered only in the western two-thirds of the state. Removing the animals from the state endangered list could open the way to future wolf hunting.
While Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been grappling with wolves in the past decade, Washington has dealt with wolves only in recent years. In 2008, a wolf pack was documented for the first time in 70 years. Now, there are eight confirmed packs, with four others suspected.
The killing of seven members of the Wedge Pack — named for the area they inhabit along the Canadian border near Laurier — has prompted an outcry from some wolf advocates. Some have criticized the owners of the Diamond M ranch for not taking enough non-lethal measures.
“As far as I know, we’ve done everything that they suggested might be effective,” Bill McIrvin said during a recent Olympia hearing. McIrvin is one of the owners of the ranch, where wolves killed or injured at least 17 animals on both private and public land. The ranch employed cowboys, delayed the turnout of their cow-calf pairs until the animals were bigger and quickly removed injured cattle, state officials said.
Wildlife officials say they’re working on new rules to compensate ranchers for losses, including for reduced weight gain or reduced pregnancy rates.
Ranchers who sign onto nonlethal agreements with WDFW would have priority for livestock compensation.
Sam Kayser, an Ellensburg cattle rancher, said he signed an agreement with the state because he knows wolves will eventually target his cattle and he wanted help.
“What are the wolves going to eat? They’re going to eat elk. If the elk numbers go short, they’re going to eat my cattle,” said Kayser, whose cattle graze on thousands of acres of private land that he leases in central Washington.
“Fish and Wildlife (department) was trying to be proactive and I was trying to be a little proactive myself,” he added.
The state is sharing the cost of a range rider who stays with the cattle to make sure they don’t become prey to wolves.
Range riders have been used in other states to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts. A pilot project in Stevens County over the summer is testing the concept in this state. Officials have been working with a rancher there and will review the success of that project in coming months to see whether and how it can be duplicated elsewhere.
Kayser says he and other cattlemen saw the conflicts coming.
“If they’re willing to try, I’m willing to try,” Kayser said. “(But) I think it’s putting off the eventuality of what’s going to be.”