How wolves have put Stevens County in the crosshairs of controversy

(By Brandon Hansen/Managing Editor)

Emotions high after WDFW announced lethal action against Smackout Pack…

With the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife performing lethal removal of wolves again in Northeastern Washington, the hot button issue of wolves continues to burn through the summer months.

Stevens County now finds itself in the middle of the blaze as the WDFW has announced that it will lethally remove wolves of the Smackout Pack. The Smackout Pack ranges far north of Colville in the Colville National Forest.

“The department will use humane lethal removal methods consistent with state and federal laws,” WDFW said in its monthly wolf report: “The objective of the methodology is to use the best method available while considering human safety, humaneness to wolves, swift completion of the removal, weather, efficacy, and cost. Likely options include shooting from a helicopter, trapping, and shooting from the ground.”

On July 28, WDFW announced that it lethally removed one wolf. As per its own protocol, it will continue to update the public on further wolf removals.

There are a minimum 115 wolves in the state of Washington. (Wiki commons photo)

This area of the state is no stranger to the wolf issue. There are a minimum of 115 wolves in the state of Washington in an estimated 20 packs. There are 15 packs in Northeastern Washington and they’ve all come here on their own, not because of relocation by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The department has made no relocation efforts of the animals, but an increase of wolves in Canada and other states has caused wolf populations to naturally migrate into the area.

“There are no federal or state plans to reintroduce wolves into Washington,” the WDFW states on their website. “Wolves are dispersing into eastern Washington and the North Cascades on their own from adjacent populations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and British Columbia. State and federal wildlife authorities are monitoring the activity of resident wolves to learn more about their use of habitat and to reduce potential conflicts.”

The Washington wolf plan does allows WDFW to consider relocating wolves within the state as a possible option for helping them to disperse.

And wolves coming into the state have found conflict with a ranching industry in NE Washington that has been using the 1.1-million acre Colville National Forest for public grazing since it was founded in 1907, other public allotments and private land in the region as well.

Washington State Representative Joel Kretz introduced a bill in the state legislature the would delist the gray wolf in Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in 2017, but the bill was killed in committee.

“As you know, the federal government has delisted the gray wolf in all regions east of Hwy 97 in central Washington,” Kretz said on his website. “Yet the state, via generous encouragement from Seattleites and other elites who don’t have to deal with the consequences, continues to insist upon listing the wolf as endangered throughout the state.”

Washington State Representative Jacquelin Maycumber said at a recent forum in Chewelah that an individual spent an hour fighting off a wolf from her dog and house using nonlethal measures.

“While I was in Olympia a couple weeks ago [an individual at the ranch] spent an hour using non-lethal measures to keep a wolf from our dogs and our house,” Maycumber said.

Maycumber said an individual at her ranch used light and sound and the wolf did not back down.

“As a rancher and as a mother of children, there are going to be more attacks,” Maycumber said. “Unfortunately, it may be on me or our neighbors.”

The WDFW made new rule changes in June that would allow the Department to act quicker when a wolf pack begins attacking livestock.

The new rules allow lethal removal if there are at least three attacks by wolves within 30 days, or four events within 10 months, including one that was not confirmed. Previously, WDFW could lethally remove wolves after at least four confirmed attacks by wolves over a year or six over two years.
The rule change earned criticism from conservation groups questioning the killing of wolves.

“We should all question a policy that was developed without public input and allows the killing of wildlife on publicly owned land, even though the livestock owner can already collect double compensation for the losses,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Ranchers are still feeling their concerns are not being met when it comes to cattle being attacked.

“Reducing wolf populations needs to become an annual practice, wolves need to be removed from the state endangered species list and hunting needs to be opened up if these kinds of attacks are going to stop,” the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association wrote on their Facebook page.

The have been 47 confirmed fatal wolf attacks on livestock since 2013 (Wikipedia Commons).

The Seattle Times reports that 4,476 cow and calf pairs were turned out on the Colville National Forest last year. Statewide, the number of wolf attacks confirmed include nine kills by four packs. That works out to 0.2 percent of the entire grazing population of the cows in the area.

Due to numbers like these, some have said that’s a lot of noise for a handful of cattle. Democratic candidate Susan Swanson in a candidate Meet and Greet in Chewelah recently said that the wolf issue can be a distraction from other important issues around us. Swanson added that wolves around us represent about three percent of the number of calves in comparison to the livestock on the range.

Wolves were not a problem for ranchers after the population had been largely shot, poisoned and hunted to extinction statewide by the 1930s, according to the department of Fish and Wildlife. For them, this is a problem on top of all the other dangers facing ranging cattle.

A lost calf can cost a rancher an estimated $500-$800 according to Chewelah Independent sources.

Wolves returned in 2008 when the first pack was documented. And with a body count of calves and cattle, along with stories of seeing or fending off wolves and fears of a person being attacked – the specter of the wolf weighs heavily in the minds of people in Stevens County.

In 2014, the economic impact of beef cattle to the state of Washington was $5.6 billion with 4,294 direct jobs.

Confirmed kills don’t tell the whole story. Len McIrvin, director of Diamond M Ranch, said that they’re losing 100 head a year due to wolf attacks. WDFW rules requires specific criteria to be sure that it’s a wolf attack, and “crime scenes” in grazing lands aren’t cut-and-dried.

The Diamond M Ranch has used non-lethal measures to keep wolves away – including range riders – but they said they’ve lost 30 head already this year. The Diamond M Ranch does not take state compensation for wolf kills on principle.

Some conservation groups, however, say that it’s because cattle producers are putting livestock on land too rugged and too remote to defend against predators.

“This is going to keep happening,” Executive Director of Kettle Range Conservation Group Tim Coleman told the Seattle Times. “It is inhumane and unjustified to put livestock on top of important predators and expect the predators not to take a bite out of them.”

Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said the vast majority of packs don’t kill livestock in Washington, where fire, accidents, disease and other factors are the leading cause for cattle deaths. The Kettle Range Conservation Group and Conservation Northwest are not affiliated groups.

Researchers from Oregon State also stated in a story for Beef Magazine that indirect effects on cattle near wolf populations include cattle diet quality, nutritional status and disease susceptibility. They could also affect calf weaning weights. One Northwest cattle producer said that his herd conception rate has plummeted, and that vet costs for maimed animals also add up.

Wolf activity, the rancher said, causes cattle to bunch up more against fences and the anxiety causes cattle to shift from high quality foraging areas to low-quality ones. Cattle temperament also changes, making them more difficult to handle.

On July 18, a Washington rancher came across an injured calf and after WDFW examined the animal they determined it had been attacked by wolves from the Sherman Pack. Three days later, another injured calf was found in a private, fenced pasture in Stevens County that had been attacked by what the department determined to be the Smackout Pack.

The Smackout Pack killed two calves and injured another in the month of September 2016. The pack injured another calf in July that same year.

This was the fifth wolf depredation or attack by the Smackout Pack since Sept. 21 of last year. The Stevens County attack was the fourth depredation by the Smackout Pack in the last 10 months, prompting the WDFW to initiate its wolf-livestock interaction protocol developed jointly by the state’s Wolf Advisory Group and WDFW. This is the fourth time in five years that WDFW has said they will lethally remove wolves.

The decision has garnered criticism from conservation groups.

“Instead of gunning down wild wolves, state officials should be ramping up nonlethal conflict-prevention measures,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Killing 3-month-old wolf pups is an appalling way to resolve this issue. We’re extremely concerned and upset that a kill order has been issued after a 10-month period of no livestock injuries or losses due to this pack.”

Conservation groups said that the WDFW wolf management policies provide for no public input and makes no environmental review.

Some ranchers such as Diamond M’s McIrvin think more local control of the wolf population is needed.

“As a cattleman who has been involved with cattle all my life-nearly 3/4 of a century, I am asking for your help as we deal with the consequences of an exploding wolf population,” McIrvin wrote in a letter to many newspapers in the state. “Local control is the only answer. Let’s do everything possible to assure that each County Sheriff has complete control and is totally in charge of all the wolf predation that affects his citizens and their property.”

The last time WDFW lethally removed wolves, it was in 2016 when the department killed seven members of the Profanity Peak Pack in nearby Ferry County after they had killed six cattle. It cost the state $135,000.

The Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association says that cost pales to the WDFW spending $850,000 on a consultant for the Wolf Advisory Committee.

Along with the wolf shot in 2014, WDFW removed seven wolves from the Wedge pack in 2012. They were assisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, but since then a federal judge has ruled federal agencies cannot help lethally remove wolves without doing an environmental impact study.

Controversy also broke out in 2016 over where the rancher had placed his cattle. According to the Seattle Times, state officials discovered by the end of June last year that the turnout site for the rancher was within four miles of the pack’s den. A WSU professor stated that the cattle were put right on top of the den, a claim that the university later retracted. That professor is now suing the university.

The topic has become such a hot issue, a new law was passed forbidding state agencies from releasing the name of ranchers and individuals reporting wolf depredations. This was because ranchers and even WDFW officials were receiving death threats.

According to the Seattle Times, Donny Martorello had his wife go to a hotel during last summer because he was fearful of her safety.

So, no doubt, the rest of the summer will be filled with updates from the WDFW about the lethal removal of wolves, responses from both conservation groups and ranchers, and local residents will have to sit and ponder what a solution for this will be.