OLYMPIA – Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff have been authorized to lethally remove wolves who have been preying on cattle grazing on federal lands in the Kettle River Range of Ferry County. The authorization, announced Sept. 12, comes from WDFW Director Kelly Susewind, following repeated attacks on cattle.
According to officials, six separate attacks have occurred since Sept. 4, with one or more members of the old Profanity Peak Territory pack killing one calf and injuring five others.
The removal of the wolves is to be “incremental,” meaning one or two wolves can be removed as per the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan and WDFW wolf-livestock interaction protocol. The protocol states lethal action against wolves can be considered if department staff confirm three predations by wolves on livestock within 30 days or four within 10 months. Depredations confirmed by WDFW in the first week of Sept. meet the criterion.
Conservation Northwest Policy Director Paula Swedeen disagrees.
“We care deeply about bridging divides and working to transform conflict around wolves returning to our state,” said Swedeen. “However, we strongly believe this situation, the third episode of conflict in this area, does not meet the intent and letter of Washington’s Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol. In the interest of wolf conservation, coexistence and the integrity of the protocol, we cannot support lethal removal in this instance at this time.”
Swedeen went on to say sufficient reduction of the potential for conflict in that specific territory had not yet occurred. The state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan and protocol developed by WDFW in conjunction with an 18-member advisory group comprised of environmentalists, livestock producers and hunters call for ranchers to employ specified non-lethal measures designed to deter wolves from preying on their livestock before lethal actions can be taken. Non-lethal methods called for include ranchers hiring range riders to keep watch over herds from the time they are turned out in the spring until they are rounded back up in the fall. Removing or securing cattle carcasses to avoid attracting wolves is another requirement of the protocol. Delaying turn out of calves until later in the season when they have reached a higher weight and are less vulnerable to attacks by wolves is another method employed by ranchers to improve the safety of cattle.
According to Fish and Wildlife staff, the livestock producer whose cattle were attacked already employed several approved deterrents, including using range riders, calving outside of the occupied wolf range, delaying turnout of cattle until July 10, removing or securing livestock carcasses and removing sick and injured livestock from the grazing area.
Prior to the confirmed depredations, WDFW found three dead calves on the grazing allotment between Aug. 20-26. The cause of death could not be determined due to most of the flesh and hides being gone. According to WDFW, the range riders then increased their patrols and assisted the rancher in moving the livestock away from the area where they suspected wolf activity.
The presence of the Old Profanity Territory wolf pack was documented after WDFW completed its annual survey of the state’s wolf population in March. The survey identified 22 wolf packs and a minimum of 122 wolves. Annual surveys have shown the population growing at a rate of about 30 percent per year.
WDFW reported the lethal removal of wolves among the OPT pack is not expected to harm the wolf population’s ability to reach recovery objectives statewide or within the state’s eastern recovery region.
“This is a very difficult situation, especially given the history of wolf-livestock conflict in this area,” said Susewind. “We are committed to working with a diversity of stakeholders in a collaborative process to seek other creative and adaptive solutions to prevent future losses of wolves and livestock.”
The authorization for lethal removal comes following an attempt by the Lawyers for the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands to seek a longer injunction against lethal removal in Thurston County Court last month.
“Lawsuits and polarization haven’t worked out well for wolves elsewhere, so we see little upside in spreading those tactics to Washington, where wolf recovery is going relatively well overall,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Bellingham-based group Conservation Northwest in a statement critical of the legal challenge. Friedman said collaboration between conservation groups, government agencies and livestock producers is leading to less social conflict concerning wolves.
“It’s also making ranchers more willing to adopt non-lethal wolf deterrence techniques,” said Friedman.
“While we disagree with the Department’s decision on going to lethal in this particular instance, we support the Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol and the Department’s authority to make decisions in implementing the protocol,” said Swedeen. “We think that getting courts involved does not get to coexistence during this difficult time and prefer continued dialogue with all affected parties to find an acceptable path forward.”
WDFW reported they would use humane lethal removal methods consistent with state and federal laws. Their stated objective is to use the best methods available while considering human safety, humaneness to wolves, swift completion of the removal, weather, efficacy and cost. WDFW said likely options in this case include shooting from a helicopter, trapping and shooting from the ground.
West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity Amaroq Weiss said the disruption of the pack structure by killing its leader could increase, not decrease, problems for area ranchers.
“In killing that wolf, that leaves his mate on her own to hunt and feed herself and her two pups,” said Weiss. “If she’s hunting by herself, she’s not going to be able to take a big, wild prey animal like an elk down by herself. The most vulnerable prey that is in the area is livestock. So, this may actually exacerbate the conflicts and result in more livestock losses, which no one wants.”
The wolf plan and protocol outlines incremental removal to include periods of active removals or attempts to remove wolves followed by periods of evaluation to determine if pack behavior has changed.