Two wolves from the so-called Wedge Pack in Northeast Washington were shot and killed Tuesday as the state Department of Fish and Wildlife continued its effort to put a stop to persistent attacks on livestock by eliminating the pack.
Three more members of the pack were killed Wednesday as a helicopter and WDFW marksman swooped in.
Since July, Wedge Pack wolves are believed to have killed or injured at least 17 cows and calves from the herd of the Diamond M Ranch of northern Stevens County.
Department Director Phil Anderson said a WDFW marksman shot the three wolves from a helicopter at about 8 a.m. Wednesday. The wolves were located about seven miles south of the Canadian border in the same area where two other wolves from the Wedge Pack were killed Tuesday.
Anderson said teams of marksmen and wildlife biologists went to an area known as the Wedge late last week, but had not killed any wolves after several days of around-the-clock activity on the ground.
Two WDFW teams had been dispatched to the area Friday with the goal of killing the members of the Wedge Pack, a group of at least eight wolves whose range includes a remote, roughly triangular area of northern Stevens County bordered by Canada and the Columbia and Kettle rivers.
Anderson had directed the pack’s removal last week in response to the wolves’ escalating pattern of predation on the livestock herd of the Diamond M Ranch despite non-lethal efforts to minimize wolf conflict by the rancher and department staff.
The rate of attacks on Diamond M livestock increased even after the department killed a non-breeding member of the pack on Aug. 7. Anderson said the wolves killed Tuesday were among six that were spotted about seven miles southeast of the ranch on the Diamond M grazing allotment. Another wolf was seen Tuesday morning at the Diamond M’s private livestock pasture.
“We decided to eliminate the Wedge Pack only after non-lethal measures were unsuccessful, and after the removal of one pack member failed to alter its behavior,” Anderson said. “We are committed to the recovery and sustainability of the gray wolf in Washington, and its numbers are increasing rapidly, but recovery won’t succeed if ranchers’ livelihoods are threatened by persistent wolf attacks on livestock.”
The Wedge Pack is one of eight confirmed and four suspected packs in the state, most of which are in Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry counties. Prior to taking lethal action, department estimated the size of the Wedge Pack at eight to 11 wolves.
Anderson said a department wildlife veterinarian would perform necropsies on the wolves later this week. He said the animals’ hides and skulls eventually would be used for educational purposes.
WDFW’s chief said the plan has the support of key conservation interests and livestock operators. Two organizations that participated in developing the state’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan – Conservation Northwest and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association – joined the department in issuing a statement explaining their positions. The full statement is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/news/attach/sep2112a_01.pdf.
According to the WDFW, western U.S. wolf experts agree the pack is now targeting livestock over natural wild prey. WDFW is consulting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services office, the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office and independent wildlife biologists with extensive experience with wolf management in other Western states.
“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,” Anderson said. “By doing that, we will preserve the opportunity for the recovery of gray wolves in balance with viable livestock operations.”
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said, “We understand that as wolves re-populate the state there will be conflicts with livestock. We also understand that we need to work with WDFW to find solutions, including the use of non-lethal measures, in order to minimize losses for producers, but we need everyone else to understand that managing and killing wolves that cause problems is an important part of a healthy co-existence.”
“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,” according to Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest executive director. “We have been strong advocates for exhausting all non-lethal means possible to avoid this situation and are extremely disappointed that it has come to this.”
Friedman expressed a strong desire for the department and ranchers in areas with wolves to work together to avoid a repeat of this situation.
“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.
Field said the Cattlemen’s Association is encouraging landowners to enter into cooperative management agreements with WDFW that specify non-lethal measures that a livestock operator will use to minimize wolf-livestock conflict.
Anderson said the management agreements would provide cost-share funding for such measures and could include “caught in the act” kill permits to enable livestock operators in Eastern Washington to protect their livestock. The department will continue to offer compensation to ranchers for wolf-caused livestock losses, he said.
“These agreements are necessary to improve cooperation between the department and livestock operators to help address the problems caused by wolves,” said Field.
State law permits WDFW to “authorize the killing of wildlife that is destroying or injuring property.” That authority is also recognized by the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, adopted in 2011 by the Fish and Wildlife Commission after five years of development with a citizen advisory group and public comment.
The state’s wolf plan is designed to re-establish a sustainable wolf population in Washington, but also recognizes that chronic depredation by wolves on livestock could undermine that goal – particularly if landowners begin killing wolves because of inaction by the state, according to the WDFW. The plan includes criteria for wolf recovery along with specific guidelines for the use of lethal measures to prevent attacks on livestock.
State law lists gray wolves as endangered throughout Washington, but this status does not preclude WDFW from taking actions necessary to protect human life or 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 has been preying on cattle.
A population model developed by Washington State University in conjunction with Washington’s wolf plan found that removing wolves pose a very low risk to the statewide recovery objectives once pack numbers reach numbers currently documented in eastern Washington.
The alpha male of the Wedge pack is equipped with a GPS and radio collar so that its movements, along with the rest of the pack, can be tracked daily. The cattle depredations investigated have occurred in the proximity of this pack’s territory.
WDFW biologists, enforcement officers and other specialists who have investigated these and other attacks have extensive training in determining the cause of livestock deaths. The department also consults with wolf experts from other agencies before making a final determination.
Experts both inside and outside the department agreed that attack marks on cattle from the Diamond M Ranch were left by wolves. These marks are distinct from those left by cougars, bears, coyotes and other predators, according to WDFW. Tracks, scat and howling near the site also support that wolves were responsible for the attacks.
Wolves were once common throughout most of Washington, but declined rapidly from being aggressively killed during the expansion of ranching and farming between 1850 and 1900, according to WDFW. Wolves were eliminated as a breeding species from the state by the 1930s, although infrequent reports of animals continued in the following decades, suggesting that small numbers of individuals continued to disperse into Washington from neighboring states and British Columbia.
Reliable reports of wolves began increasing in Washington in about 2005 due in part to the recent recovery of wolf populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
For more information see: Frequently Asked Questions” Wedge Wolf Pack Lethal Removal Actions: