Opposing conservation and livestock groups eventually stood in agreement last week with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife concerning a wolf pack in northeast Washington that appears to be preying exclusively on cattle in the region.
In the end, it was decided pack must be eliminated. But the opposing sides, along with the WDFW, agree every nonlethal solution possible to correct the situation was exhausted and the best available decision was reached.
“We made lemonade out of a big bunch of lemons,” said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
“It was a bad situation for everyone, certainly,” said Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest. “But in the end, the correct solutions were reached.”
The WDFW announced on Sept. 21 plans to eliminate a pack of eight to 12 wolves in Stevens County that is believed to have killed or injured 17 cattle since July.
The Wedge Pack, named for the remote, roughly triangular area of northern Stevens County bordered by Canada and the Columbia and Kettle rivers where it roams, has repeatedly preyed on livestock over the past three months and has not changed this pattern despite nonlethal efforts. After the sixth documented attack on cattle from the Diamond M Ranch by wolves in August, WDFW removed one wolf from the Wedge Pack in an effort to break the growing cycle of predation.
But Western U.S. wolf experts agreed the pack is now targeting livestock over natural wild prey.
“Once wolves become habituated to livestock as their primary food source, all of the wolf experts we’ve talked to agree that we have no alternative but to remove the entire pack,” said Phil Anderson, WDFW director. “By doing that, we will preserve the opportunity for the recovery of gray wolves in balance with viable livestock operations.”
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association and Conservation Northwest both worked in the development of the state’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, and both agreed to release the joint statement with the WDFW regarding the Wedge Pack decision – even though the final decision was the WDFW’s alone.
“Much of the process was people and experts would express their opinions, we would continue to evaluate and keep people informed,” said Dave Ware of the WDFW. “Then the decision reached demonstrated we are trying to work together as best as we can with wolf recovery.”
“As difficult as this situation with the Wedge Pack is to accept on a personal level, we understand and agree that pack removal is the right action at this point,” Friedman said. “We have been strong advocates for exhausting all nonlethal means possible to avoid this situation and are extremely disappointed that it has come to this.”
“On one side, you have people who have their livelihood on the line,” Field said. “On the other side, you have people who have their philosophical issues on the line.
“We understand that as wolves re-populate the state there will be conflicts with livestock. … But we need everyone else to understand that managing and killing wolves that cause problems is an important part of a healthy co-existence.”
State law lists gray wolves as endangered throughout Washington, but it permits the WDFW to “authorize the killing of wildlife that is destroying or injuring property.”
Wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state but are no longer federally listed in the eastern third, where the Wedge Pack resides.
As part of its nonlethal attempts to control the Wedge Pack, the WDFW required Diamond M to have calving areas moved from the region to make calves less vulnerable. Calves were released into the herd later in the spring when they were larger and more natural prey was available for the wolves. Also, the ranch now employs five range riders to help monitor the herd.
“Hopefully, we’ve helped those people up in Stevens County to be able to get back to doing their jobs,” Field said.
Cooperation between ranchers and the WDFW will always be a key element for the future of the overall health of the state’s wolf recovery program, Friedman said.
“There has to be a commitment on the part of all sides to allow wolves to occupy the landscape while protecting the rancher’s livelihood and maintain their ability to raise cattle,” he said.