Photograph by Cultura Creative (RF) / Alamy Stock Photo
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As wolves have made a comeback across the West, debate has raged over how to deal with those that attack livestock.

Photograph by Cultura Creative (RF) / Alamy Stock Photo

Controversial killing of wolves continues in Washington State

The state recently killed the three members of the Wedge pack, the latest flashpoint in a fierce debate over how to best manage the carnivores.

State wildlife officials have killed the remainder of a wolf pack in eastern Washington and authorized the killing of one to two members of a nearby pack, reaffirming the state’s controversial policy of using lethal means to deal with the predators when they attack cattle.

The announcement comes after the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shot a female wolf on July 27 in Colville National Forest, in the state’s northeast corner. She and two other wolves made up the Wedge pack, which had killed four cattle and injured 12 in the area since April. The nearby Leadpoint pack is suspected of killing or injuring six livestock in the past 30 days.

The same day as the female’s death, the department released a statement saying it would aim to limit use of lethal controls against its state’s wolves.

After the Wedge pack’s female was killed, the pack’s two remaining wolves killed two more cattle. Not long after, the department’s director, Kelley Susewind announced the state would take lethal action against them, and on August 17, the department announced they’d been killed.

The state has now killed 34 wolves in eastern Washington in the past eight years for livestock attacks.

Source: USFS

“We would love not to kill wolves,” says Staci Lehman, a spokesperson for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But there are also people whose livelihoods are impacted.”

Rancher Len McIrvin, owner of Diamond M Ranch, which lost cattle to the Wedge pack, says that “problem wolves need to be removed.” He says his business has lost more than 70 head of cattle per year since 2008 because of wolf attacks, though the state hasn’t confirmed more than 30 wolf-caused livestock mortalities a year in all of Washington during that time.

The female’s death is the latest flashpoint in the state’s fierce debate over wolf conservation. While the state wildlife agency says it’s doing what’s necessary to protect ranchers, some scientists, environmentalists, and politicians—including Governor Jay Inslee—have decried the killing on humane and ecological grounds, arguing it’s not a scientifically valid approach.

Many of those opposed to the state’s actions point to recent research suggesting non-lethal methods, such as guardian dog teams and protected livestock enclosures, which tend to be more successful at preventing future attacks than simply killing predators, says University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist, Adrian Treves. Such killings can actually lead to more livestock losses because it disrupts the pack’s social networks, leading surviving wolves to turn easier prey such as domestic animals, says Treves, who founded Carnivore Coexistence Lab, which conducts research worldwide on conflict between predators and livestock.

Some ranchers argue that using non-lethal techniques doubles their workload, adds operational costs, and only works on occasion. Still, a number of eastern Washington ranchers work proactively with the state to keep their herds safe using the non-lethal methods and rarely lose livestock, the agency says.

Violent history

While gray wolves were once found throughout Washington—and most of the United States—settlers exterminated them from the state by the 1930s. Since 1995, wolves have been reintroduced throughout most of the northern Rocky Mountains and southwestern states, yet they remain under federal protection in many areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, has proposed removing gray wolves from the federal Endangered Species List, sparking fierce debate.

In the past 12 years, some have dispersed from populations in Canada and Idaho to return to Washington. Today, most of the state’s estimated 145 wolves live in eastern Washington, where they’re classified as endangered under state law. More breeding pairs need to become established in western Washington before their classification can be downgraded.

Wolves prefer to prey on wild elk or deer, but they’ll hunt young calves or cattle separated from their herd because they’re easy prey. In Washington, if a rancher suspects a cow’s death was caused by wolves, state officials conduct a forensic investigation. If a wolf kill is confirmed, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife pays the rancher up to $10,000 per incident and helps fund non-lethal conflict prevention tailored to the rancher’s operation. Lethal action should only be considered as a last resort after repeated attacks on cattle, according to department policy.

Twenty-nine of the 34 wolves the state has killed were exterminated because they had attacked livestock owned by Diamond M Ranch, which owns a herd of about 1,600 cattle. The establishment is run by McIrvin, whose family pays a fee to the U.S. Forest Service to graze their cattle in the 810,000 acres designated for that purpose by the federal government’s management plan for Colville National Forest.

“If wolves habituate to killing cattle, you remove the pack, pure and simple,” McIrvin says in a phone interview. His main complaint is that state regulations keep him from doing the job himself. “All they’ve got to do is say, ‘Take care of your problem,’ and everything will be OK. But they won’t do that.”

The Colville National Forest encompasses the Kettle River Range, and cows can easily get separated from the herd in the rugged mountain terrain. Range riding is the best way to prevent wolves from hunting cattle on this kind of landscape, says Chris Bachman, wildlife director for the Spokane-based conservation group, the Lands Council. Range riders are specially trained horseback riders who roam the grasslands and forests where cattle graze to keep them safe from wolves and other predators. He’s working with the state and local ranchers to standardize best practices for how range riders operate.

“If you don't have a range rider keeping the cattle bunched up, they go everywhere. Then it's only a matter of time before they're preyed upon,” Bachman says.

If range riders encounter wolves nearby, they may use deterrents such as flashing lights, loud music, or gunshots to scare them away. They’re primarily trained and contracted by the state, which offers their services to ranchers at little-to-no cost. Some ranchers, however, including McIrvin, prefer to hire crews of their own.

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Range riders are also tasked with finding cattle carcasses and reporting them to ranch management for removal. Removing the bodies of dead livestock—as well as injured animals—are key to reducing attacks because they can attract more wolves, experts say.

Before the Wedge pack female was shot on July 27, state wildlife agents reported injured calves from Diamond M were not found until days after they were attacked. This would suggest the non-lethal deterrents were improperly employed, or that the herd had been left unmonitored when the conflicts occurred, says Amaroq Weiss, the senior West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. McIrvin says his range riders were on site, but state records show range riders were working only six full days and eight partial days out of the 26 days leading up to the most recent conflicts.

“There’s not one single non-lethal [method] that works,” McIrvin says. “The best that a range rider could do is chase wolves onto my neighbors’ property.”

Not all ranchers are as strident as McIrvin, and many struggle over what to do.

“It’s hard out there,” says Montana rancher Hilary Zaranek, who runs an operation with her husband and three kids in the Tom Miner Basin, their state’s most densely packed wolf territory. “I’ve sat in a field of dead wolves and just cried. And I’ve piled up four-wheelers with dead calves, then gone home and wanted to quit ranching. Even people who want to go out there and do something different aren’t always clear on what to do.”

Killing breeds killing

Research shows that killing individual members of a wolf pack can cause it to splinter, making wolves more desperate and likely to attack cattle, according to Weiss.

“It leads to more conflicts. Having stable packs that have families in multiple generations is going to lead to more stable situations. One or two adults on their own go for easier prey. Livestock is easier to hunt than wild elk or deer. So you’re creating that scenario,” Weiss says.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has acknowledged this behavior in the past. In documents released in an August 2018 court case, Benjamin Maletzke, the department statewide wolf specialist, wrote that injuring a male wolf during breeding season may increase the likelihood he and his partner attack livestock. If one of the pair is injured, he wrote, it compromises their ability to take down wild prey to feed their family. The same is true if he’s killed, Weiss says. If an entire pack is killed, livestock attacks may stop temporarily, but soon a new pack will likely move in. The Wedge pack, for example, moved in after the previous pack was killed by the state.

Other scientific research supports this view. Treves and colleagues reviewed 40 years of research on lethal and non-lethal methods for reducing predation on livestock and reached a “striking conclusion,” according to the 2018 paper publishing their findings: “Lethal methods have shown recurrent counterproductive effects leading to more livestock losses,” Treves says.

But Trent Roussin, a Washington Fish and Wildlife field biologist who monitors packs in the northeastern region, argues the debate about destabilized pack behavior causing more depredations isn’t settled. And he says that the need to reduce attacks right away often is the primary consideration. “On the ground, the reason we’re removing wolves is to stop depredations this year, now,” he says.

Roussin says that by removing the non-breeding Wedge pack female, “We're hoping that we've reduced the caloric demands,” thus lowering the need for killing more prey. Perhaps she was also the one responsible for the cattle-slaying, Roussin says, but that’s unclear. “We never really know until afterwards if killing a certain wolf will be effective,” he says.

In this case, the pack has attacked more cattle since July 27th, Lehman says.

Stray targets

It’s not just environmentalists who have protested the killings. On September 30, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee sent a letter to the wildlife agency requesting that they “significantly reduce the need for lethal removal” of gray wolves.

On July 27—the same day the Wedge pack wolf was shot—the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department responded to Inslee’s request, announcing that it will offer more range riding support in “chronic conflict zones,” including the Kettle River Range. They will also test new methods for locating livestock over large areas, including reflective collars and bells for cattle, and radio-transmitting ear tags.

Other new efforts include more funding for range riders and providing community stockpiles of resources for ranchers to use, such as flashlights, flags to establish perimeters, and airhorns. Riders will also have to use handheld GPS devices and keep daily logs for greater transparency and accountability.

These additional resources will be of little use, Weiss points out, if ranchers like McIrvin don’t fully commit to using them. He says his resistance is rooted in a distrust of “bureaucracy,” even though the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife considers ranchers akin to “clients.”

But for many, the agency’s continued killing of wolves overshadows any current plans for reform. Treves says he’s frustrated because he and other scientists have communicated for years with the state about “internationally-recognized, best available science on methods to protect livestock from predators. Yet they seem to rely on irreproducible science in weak journals to justify killing wolves.”