WDFW Says Gray Wolf Recovery in State Still On Track Despite Removal of Cattle-Killing Pack
Gray wolves are quickly re-establishing themselves in Washington state, despite the elimination of seven members of one pack that systematically preyed on a rancher's cattle, state wildlife managers told the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission during a public meeting Oct. 5 in Olympia.
Speaking to a room packed with ranchers and wolf advocates, wildlife managers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife outlined wolves' recovery since 2007 and the department's decision to remove the so-called Wedge pack in Stevens County late last month.
"No one wants to see a repeat of the situation that led to our action against the Wedge pack," said Dave Ware, WDFW game manager. "But the fact remains that wolves are recovering more quickly than expected, and we have to anticipate there will be some conflicts along the way."
WDFW Director Phil Anderson described how members of the Wedge pack - one of eight confirmed packs in the state - killed or injured 16 cows from the Diamond M ranch near the Canadian border from mid-July through late September. The department took lethal action only after a series of non-lethal measures employed by the rancher and state wildlife biologists failed to "break the cycle of predation," he said.
"Killing wolves is definitely not our preferred option, but in this case we saw it as a last resort to address a bad situation," Anderson said.
Many of the 41 members of the public who spoke at the meeting criticized WDFW's use of lethal measures, while others said the department should do more to protect ranchers' livestock, according to the WDFW.
For their part, members of the nine-member citizen commission that sets policy for WDFW credited Anderson and other state wildlife managers with keeping them - and the public - apprised of the situation.
"They kept us informed every step of the way," said Commissioner Rolland Schmitten from Chelan County.
Since then, state and tribal biologists have confirmed the presence of another pack - the Strawberry pack - on the Colville Indian Reservation in central Washington, said Donny Martorello, WDFW's carnivore manager. The department is also working to confirm the presence of four other suspected packs in eastern Washington, he said.
Martorello said rapid in-migration of wolves from neighboring states and British Columbia is moving the state closer to reaching recovery goals established by the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, adopted by the commission last December after five years of public review.
That plan establishes a goal of 15 breeding pairs of wolves distributed among three regions of the state for three years - or 18 pairs in one year - before the state can consider delisting gray wolves as an endangered species.
The gray wolf is an endangered species throughout Washington under state law and is endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state. 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.
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, according to the WDFW.
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.
Martorello noted that Washington's wolf management plan, like those in effect in all states with gray wolf populations, allows wildlife managers to use both lethal and non-lethal means to control wolf predation on cattle.
"Wolves are highly adaptable, prolific animals," Martorello said. "Thousands of wolves have been killed to protect cattle in other states in recent decades, yet wolves continue to thrive."
To minimize conflicts, Ware said WDFW will be working with ranchers to take additional steps to protect their cattle when they turn them out to pasture next year. Ranchers who enter into new cost-sharing agreements can qualify for assistance to pay for electric fencing, guard dogs, "range riders" and other protection measures.
"The success of wolf recovery in our state depends on social tolerance for these animals - especially among ranchers and others most affected by them," Ware said.