The state’s emphasis on non-lethal control is saving livestock and wolves, but rural residents are still leery.
In July 2015, some U.S. Air Force personnel were hiking about eight miles up North Fork Chewelah Creek, in northeastern Washington, when they found the chewed-up remains of a cow. They notified the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which sent out investigators the next day. The investigators found a second carcass nearby and three days later, discovered two more — a cow and a calf. Wolves, they determined, had killed all four animals.
The dead cattle were squarely in the territory of a wolf pack called Dirty Shirt, and local ranchers’ reactions were predictably fierce. “The time for the removal of the Dirty Shirt pack is now,” Justin Hedrick, the president of the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association, said in a statement. But instead of mustering sharpshooters, wildlife officials sent riders on horseback to keep the wolves away. They used generators to shine bright lights around the rest of the herd, while other employees patrolled the area. They shared data on the pack’s location — three wolves are radio-collared — with area livestock producers, so other cattle could be shifted out of harm’s way. But they also said that if the wolves killed more cows, they would consider shooting them.
Within a few days, the pack moved to a different part of its territory, and fears died down. Three months later, its wolves remain on probation of a sort, but the state hasn’t taken further action. And even though tempers still simmer, the incident shows the difference between wolf recovery in the Northwest compared to the Rocky Mountains or the Southwest. Washington, with its generally more progressive politics, was able to adopt policies that would have had little traction in the Interior West. But even here, thanks to stark urban-rural political divides, the effort’s successes come by way of a very delicate and ongoing balancing act.
by Eric Wagner Oct. 26, 2015
A curious gray wolf from the Lookout Pack in northeast Washington encounters a trail-cam. Trail-cam photos like this can help wildlife officials document wolf presence and estimate pack composition, reproductive status and territory use. David Moskowitz
August 7, 2015 by Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times
Range Rider Bill Johnson rides through rough terrain as he monitors an area that showed heavy wolf traffic earlier in the morning using GPS tracking data of collared wolves provided by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. (Sy Bean / The Seattle Times)
Bill Johnson’s border collie, Nip, was just doing her job when the black cow wheeled and lunged at the dog.
Before wolves returned to this valley, that kind of behavior was rare, said Johnson, who – with Nip’s assistance – was driving a group of cattle up a dusty canyon. Now, cows aggressively confront any canine that gets close to their calves.
“It’s a sign that the wolves have been probing the cattle,” he said.
As part of a project called Range Riders, it’s Johnson’s job to keep cows and wolves away from one another. Every day before saddling his horse and heading into the field, he logs onto the computer to see exactly where the valley’s resident wolf pack has been hanging out.
On this scorching summer day, radio collar signals placed them very near the spot where the cow spooked.
“They were right here at 7 a.m.,” Johnson said, reining in his mount along a small creek. Close examination of the muddy banks revealed a few smeared paw prints. Nearby were piles of scat. Johnson dismounted, poked at the poop with an antler handle knife and declared that the wolves had dined on elk, rodents and robins’ eggs.
Johnson became a range rider shortly after wolves returned to the Teanaway area four years ago. With funding from Conservation Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the project helps ranchers hire seasoned cowhands to watch over their herds and keep tabs on wolves in the hope of reducing conflicts with the new predators in the neighborhood.
“Wolves bring up so many emotions on all sides,” said Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest. “We wanted to find that middle ground and work with ranchers to give them the best possible tools for nonlethal deterrence.”
Seven ranch families around the state signed up this year to receive up to $9,000 each – money the conservation group raises from donors. Under a separate program, WDFW signed agreements with 41 ranchers to provide up to $300,000 in statewide subsidies for range riders and other measures – like automated lights and sirens, guard dogs and special flagging for pens – to discourage wolves from attacking livestock.
Rancher Sam Kayser, who owns the 500 head of cattle in Johnson’s care, was among the first to sign up for both programs. Riding with Johnson in mid-July, Kayser said he hadn’t lost a single animal to wolves.
“The wolves are here, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “I want to believe there’s room for all of us.”
Kayser still holds to that philosophy even though, just days later, circling vultures led Johnson to the carcass of a yearling steer. Wildlife officials confirmed the animal had been killed by wolves.
“I don’t feel it’s a failure,” Kayser said. “It doesn’t mean I like it, but it’s just one loss in four or five years.”
And under his agreement with the state, Kayser can expect timely compensation for the dead steer. “I appreciate that, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to carry the financial burden for the public getting to have wolves.”
As in most of the United States, wolves were hunted to near-extinction in Washington decades ago. The animals began making a comeback in the state in the early 2000s. Today, Washington is home to at least 68 wolves in 16 known packs.
With four or five animals, the Teanaway pack is the closest to the state’s urban corridor. The majority of the wolves are concentrated in northeast Washington, where conflicts have been more severe. Wolves killed three cows and a calf north of Chewelah, Stevens County, last month. Last year, a sheep rancher in Stevens County documented 26 wolf-kills and lost an additional 200 animals without a trace.
The state sent in a marksman to target problem animals in that pack, but he accidentally killed the alpha female.
Shooting wolves is – and should be – a last resort, Kehne said.
A recent analysis of 25 years of data found that livestock attacks can actually increase after wolves are killed. The likely explanation, according to scientists at Washington State University, is that taking out an alpha male or female disrupts a pack’s social structure, leading to multiple breeding pairs instead of just one. If more pups are born, the potential for livestock attacks goes up.
Nine months before Kayser’s calf turned up dead, a poacher illegally shot and killed the Teanaway pack’s alpha female.
“Wolves are a major predator, and you’re going to have some problems,” Kehne said. “The hope and goal is to use nonlethal methods to keep those problems to a minimum.”
But when all those nonlethal options fail, killing wolves may sometimes be the only solution, he acknowledged.
In addition to range riders, one of the most effective ways to keep wolves from developing a taste for livestock is simply to remove carcasses of animals that die from other causes, said WDFW’s Joey McCanna.
The state recently got seed money to build a facility in Ferry County where livestock producers can drop off dead animals for composting.
“People were leery at first,” said McCanna, leader of a group of wildlife-conflict specialists who work with ranchers across Eastern Washington. “But now we’re at full capacity.”
In the Teanaway area, wildlife officials have been trying to persuade a small meat-cutting operation to stop dumping bones and scraps into a canyon regularly visited by the local wolves.
“They’re up there a lot,” said Johnson, who sometimes packs a portable antenna to get real-time locations on the pack. He sometimes hears them howling from his house, and usually catches a glimpse of the animals once or twice each summer.
Johnson’s duties as a range rider aren’t that different from those of any cowboy. Much of his time is spent moving cattle from one place to another – sometimes to avoid wolves, but more often to optimize grazing. Just having a human around the cows may be the best wolf-deterrent of all, he explained.
In some ways, the programs are throwbacks to the past, when cowboys stuck with their herds. But after predator populations plummeted, many ranchers cut back on staff to save money.
“Range riders are an old concept, but they’re relatively new again for the new generation of producers,” McCanna said.
Researchers from WSU are conducting a multiyear study on the effectiveness of range riders and other nonlethal deterrents. A better understanding of what works will be key as wolves move into new territory across Washington, Kehne said.
“Sooner or later, they’re going to show up outside that 3-acre alpaca ranch on the west side of the Cascades,” he said.
Hostility to wolves remains high east of the mountains, and Kayser said he’s sympathetic to ranchers who are facing much higher wolf numbers than in the Teanaway.
Several fellow ranchers accuse him of selling out.
“Some of them say, if you sign that agreement you’re saying it’s OK for wolves to kill your cattle,” Kayser said. “I call B.S. on that. To me, the goal is coexistence.”
Still, he was relieved when the tracking data showed that soon after killing his calf, the Teanaway pack moved off and is now ranging through more distant canyons.
“The wolves are here, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I want to believe there’s room for all of us.”
The remains of wolves killed by wildlife officials hang over the side of a truck in Montana in 2004. These animals, which were not part of the Huckleberry Pack, were killed because they attacked cattle.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
In late August, a government sharpshooter in a helicopter hovering above a wooded eastern Washington hillsidekilled the lead female wolf of the Huckleberry Pack. The aim was to end attacks by the wolf pack, which had killed more than two dozen sheep.
But in the long run, a shooting like this could just make matters worse. A new study has found that—paradoxically—killing a wolf can increase the risk that wolves will prey on livestock in the future.
The research, published today in the scientific journal PLOS One, flies in the face of the common idea that the swiftest and surest way to deal with wolves threatening livestock is by shooting the predators. It adds to a growing understanding of how humans influence the complex dynamics driving these pack animals, sometimes with unexpected consequences.
As wolves spread across the West, triggering more encounters with sheep and cattle, and as two states host wolf-hunting seasons, the new research also adds more fuel to an already heated political debate about how to deal with wolves.
“The livestock industry, they’re not going to be happy with this,” said Rob Wielgus, a Washington State University ecologist and the study’s lead author.
Back From the Brink
Shooting wolves is a long-standing practice in the ranching world. It helped lead to the animal’s eradication in the western United States in the 1930s. Since the wolf’s reintroduction in the mid-1990s, government officials and ranchers have frequently reached for a gun to cope with livestock problems—killing more than 2,000 wolves by 2013.
In 2011, wolves were removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah. (Wyoming got a similar stamp of approval in 2012, but a federal judge recently overturned that decision.) That has made it easier to shoot wolves—Idaho and Montana now even allow recreational hunting.
But there have never been any large-scale studies of whether killing wolves really helps protect livestock.
Enter Wielgus. He has a track record for turning conventional wisdom on its head when it comes to attempts to control predators. In 2008 he made news with research that found shooting cougars led to more attacks on livestock. When mature adults were killed, Wielgus said, less seasoned adolescents moved in and were more likely to prey on cows and sheep.
After wolves arrived in Washington in 2008, growing to 13 packs by 2013, Wielgus turned his attention to the newest carnivore on the block. He examined 25 years of data on killing of wolves and cases where wolves attacked cattle and sheep in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—the first states where wolves were reintroduced.
Gray Wolves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What the Data Say
Wielgus found that when a wolf was killed, the chances of livestock getting killed increased the following year in that state—by 5 to 6 percent for cattle and 4 percent for sheep. With each additional wolf killed, the chance of livestock attacks rose further. The trend didn’t reverse until more than a quarter of the wolves in the state were killed in a single year. Then livestock losses started to decline.
That level of wolf-killing happened several times even while wolves were federally protected, under rules that allowed shooting of wolves that threatened livestock. And it is happening now in Idaho and Montana. Last year, hunters killed 231 wolves in Montana and 356 in Idaho, helping to reduce the population to slightly more than 600 in each state. The Idaho legislature this year created a Wolf Depredation Control Board, a move critics say is aimed at pushing wolf numbers down to just above 150—a cutoff that could trigger renewed protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Wielgus isn’t certain why more livestock die when smaller numbers of wolves are killed. But he suspects it’s tied to changes in pack behavior. Packs are led by a male and female breeding pair. If one or both of those wolves is killed, the pack can break up, giving rise to several breeding pairs—and thus an uptick in the wolf population. Livestock losses decline only when enough wolves are killed to overwhelm their ability to keep up through reproduction.
The theory fits observations made in and around Yellowstone National Park. Wolf packs inside the park—where wolves aren’t shot—are large and complex, with wolves of a variety of ages living together, said Doug Smith, a lead wolf researcher at Yellowstone. Wolf packs elsewhere tend to be just a breeding pair and pups.
For Wielgus, the upshot of his study is that while killing a wolf might sometimes be necessary, as a routine practice it’s counterproductive and unsustainable. Either livestock losses go up or, if enough wolves are killed to reduce livestock deaths, wolf numbers eventually drop so low that wolves wind up back on the endangered species list. If the killing slows to less than 25 percent of the wolf population per year, his study suggests, depredation rates shoot back up.
“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” Wielgus said. “You can reduce them now, but you can only reduce them so far, and when you stop that heavy harvest, now you’re at maximum livestock depredation.”
Is There Another Way?
Reaction to the new study was split down predictable fault lines. Wolf conservationists pointed to it as evidence that shooting wolves to save livestock usually doesn’t make sense. “You have this very archaic paradigm of kill first, ask questions later,” said Suzanne Stone, senior northwest representative for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Overall, people in the livestock industry are “still pretty rigid in their views that the only way to deal with predators is to kill them. And that’s not true. It actually works against them.”
Stone has run a program with sheep growers in one Idaho valley aimed at finding ways for sheep and wolves to coexist. The ranchers there resort to a number of tactics to protect roughly 30,000 sheep: monitoring wolves to avoid grazing the sheep near denning sites, using guard dogs, flashing bright lights to scare off wolves, stringing a wire hung with small strips of fabric around the flock at night, and increasing the number of people herding the animals.
Stone said the program is cheaper than dispatching a gunman in a helicopter. Fewer than 30 sheep have been lost to wolves in seven years, and no wolves have been killed.
Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said his group works with members to help them deter wolves without shooting the animals. But he still sees guns as critical tools, and he says wolf problems have declined recently as the number of Idaho wolves has gone down.
“Wolves get into livestock, we kill the wolves. And that works well,” Boyd said. “The professor can say whatever he wants. We’re not going to just let wolves run wild.”
In Washington state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which paid for Wielgus’s research, is waiting for him to complete a broader examination of all options for managing wolves, said John Pierce, the agency’s chief wildlife scientist. “In the long run, we definitely would prefer to do nonlethal removal if we can figure out how it works,” Pierce said.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Huckleberry Pack. In the aftermath of the shooting of the lead female, will fewer sheep die in wolf attacks—or more?
Wolves, lions and other large carnivores rely on meat for sustenance and there are only so many wild animals to go round. Sometimes, dinner means cow or sheep.
Farmers can use guard dogs or protective fencing to deter predators and protect livestock. But lethal methods such as hunting and trapping are also used to control wild carnivore numbers.
As a livestock farmer in wolf country, it would be reasonable to assume that killing more predators would result in fewer attacks on your animals. However, a new study by Washington State University has turned this assumption on its head by discovering the opposite: the more wolves that are killed (up to a threshold of 25% of the population), the more the remainder preyed on local sheep and cows. Why is this?
Unpicking the pack
The researchers, Robert Wielgus and Kaylie Peebles, point to the nature of the species’ social systems: wolves live in family groups containing a breeding pair (also known as the alpha pair) along with related sub-adults, juveniles and pups. The alphas are the only breeders within the group as they limit reproduction by their subordinates.
Killing one of the alphas disrupts the pack and subordinate wolves, who often outnumber the breeders, are then free to reproduce. This could increase the number of breeding individuals in the area, thereby increasing the population of hungry wolves – maybe farmers who shoot wolves are inadvertently doing more towards conservation than they think!
Conversely, as humans are more likely to shoot youngsters than adult breeding wolves, the alphas may be temporarily be in a more favourable situation. There would be less competition for food, fewer clashes with other wolves and less risk of the transmission of disease. Again, this could result in short-term increases in attacks on livestock.
Wolf packs also have an important educational role, as the experienced wolves pass on their knowledge. Killing them impairs this social learning. If the rest of the pack hasn’t learnt the skills necessary to take on bison or elk they may instead turn towards easier pickings on the farm.
It is interesting to note that this paradoxical finding is not just found in relation to wolves – lethal control of cougars (or mountain lions) also means the remainder kill more cows and sheep as younger, inexperienced cougars are more likely to attack livestock.
It must be noted that other studies have shown that killing predators can sometimes reduce the numbers of livestock they themselves kill, but this is only temporary, until new populations of predators establish themselves.
What to do about wolves?
If we would like a world where neither livestock nor predators are killed, we are either going to have to take away all the predators or all the livestock. Clearly neither one of these options is viable so we must aim to reduce preying on farm animals to a tolerable level.
Despite proof that changes inlivestock husbandryreduces predation, farmers may still not want these creatures living near them as they may feel that the carnivores have “won” or taken over “their” land.
We must therefore start to think outside the box. Much of this conflict between humans and wild predators is not really about protecting livestock, but instead concerns a deeper historic and cultural aversion to wolves, lions and other scary carnivores. This won’t be fixed through simple technical solutions – and we now know it certainly won’t be fixed with a gun.
POACHING – A Whitman County wolf-shooting case has been turned over by state officers to County Prosecutor Denis Tracy.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police delivered their evidence to the prosecutor on Nov. 19.
The man who shot a wolf around Oct. 12 could be charged with a misdemeanor for killing an animal that’s protected in far-Eastern Washington by state endangered species laws, said Steve Crown, Fish and Wildlife police chief.
The agency turned over case after receiving DNA lab results that confirmed the animal was a wolf and not a wolf hybrid.
Tracy’s office staff said Wednesday that the prosecutor is still investigating the case and has set no deadline for making the decision on whether to prosecute.
The identity of the shooter has not been released although WDFW officers described the man as a county farmer.
The original WDFW report said the man chased the wolf in a vehicle and shot it in a Palouse farm field about 15 miles southwest of Pullman.
“We’re not recommending anything,” Crown said. “We’re simply referring the facts of the case in our report. It’s up to the prosecutor to examine the facts and the case law and decide whether to bring charges.”
Although exemptions are made for killing a wolf to protect life or livestock, unlawful taking of a state endangered species is punishable by sentences of up to a year in jail and fines up to $5,000.
The only wolf-killing case to be prosecuted in Washington resulted in Twisp ranching family members being ordered to pay fines totaling $50,000 in 2012 for killing two Lookout Pack wolves in 2008. Those wolves also were protected by federal laws.
Another wolf was found shot to death Feb. 9 near Cedar Lake in northeast Stevens County. Conservation groups joined with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to offer a $22,500 reward for information about the case. The case remains unsolved.
SEATTLE— Conservation groups are offering up to a $15,000 reward for information leading to conviction of those responsible for the illegal killing of the breeding female wolf of the Teanaway pack in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The killing is one of several in the past year jeopardizing the recovery of Washington’s gray wolves, which are fully protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of Washington and throughout the state under state endangered species law.
Teanaway pack wolf courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This photo is available for media use.
State and federal officials recovered the dead Teanaway pack breeding female on Oct. 28 near the Salmon la Sac area north of Cle Elum. Based on GPS collar data, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents believe the animal was killed around Oct. 17.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has requested that anyone with information about the killing of this wolf, or who might have noticed suspicious behavior in the Teanaway area, to contact federal law enforcement agents at (206) 512-9329 or (509) 727-8358. State law enforcement may be contacted at the 1-877-933-9847 hotline for reporting poaching activity in Washington. Reports to this hotline may be made anonymously.
“We know that it’s very likely that someone has important information about this abhorrent killing that will be useful to law enforcement,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is contributing to the reward. “Statewide surveys indicate three out of every four Washington residents support restoring wolves here, and now we need some of those concerned citizens to step up and help us prevent further setbacks for recovery by helping us find and convict the person responsible for the brutal death of this animal.”
“Whether one supports or opposes wolf recovery in the Northwest, poaching like this is an unacceptable abuse of our shared natural heritage,” said Jasmine Minbashian, communications director for Conservation Northwest.
“Every wolf counts in Washington’s ongoing and fragile wolf recovery,” said Shawn Cantrell, director of Defenders of Wildlife Northwest field office. “It is our hope that this reward will help law enforcement bring the person responsible for the killing of this wolf to justice and deter future tragic killings.”
“This tragic, illegal killing of yet another alpha female clearly demonstrates why all of our state’s gray wolves need protection. They are an endangered species and still have a long road to a full recovery in Washington,” said Dan Paul, Washington state director for The Humane Society of the United States. “We thank the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their commitment to investigate this heinous act.”
The groups coordinating the reward for information leading to a conviction in this case include the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, and Woodland Park Zoo.
There were only 52 confirmed wolves in Washington at the end of 2013, with five of Washington’s packs statewide having confirmed breeding pairs – two in the North Cascades and three in Northeast Washington. This killing is the second breeding pack female lost in Washington in 2014, and has left the North Cascades Recovery Region with the potential for only one successful breeding pair, a decline back to the 2008 breeding level. The other known loss in 2014 was the Huckleberry pack breeding female in northeastern Washington in August. The state wolf conservation goal is a minimum of 15 successful breeding pairs for three consecutive years in three recovery regions across the state from eastern Washington to the Olympic Peninsula. To date, numbers of successful breeding packs in the state have been stagnant at five since 2012.
Washington’s wolves were driven to extinction in the early 1900s by a government-sponsored eradication program on behalf of the livestock industry. Since the early 2000s, the animals have started to make a slow comeback by dispersing into Washington from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia.
Human-caused mortality has been a major cause of losses for Washington’s wolves since wolves began recolonizing the state in 2007, including wolves in at least six of the state’s known packs (Lookout, Ruby, Wedge, Huckleberry, Teanaway and Diamond packs). The killings have included the breeding females in four of the state’s productive packs (Lookout, Wedge, Huckleberry, Teanaway).
Because the Teanaway pack represents the southern edge of confirmed wolf recovery in Washington’s Cascades, the pack’s continued survival is critically important to meet the state’s recovery goals. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, local ranchers and conservation organizations have invested extensive time and resources to prevent conflict between this wolf pack and livestock, including co-sponsoring range riders to supervise sheep and cattle herds. These efforts have been successful, with no reported conflicts within the territory of the Teanaway pack in recent years. State wildlife officials recently described the Teanaway wolves as a model pack. With the loss of its breeding female, the pack’s future success is now in jeopardy.
Yesterday, we learned that the alpha female of the Teanawaypack was shot and killed, throwing the entire pack’s future into jeopardy. Disturbingly, the killing may have been intentional and a criminal investigation is underway since wolves in Washington State are protected under both state and federal law.
There are barely 60 known wolves in the entire state of Washington. With the tragic loss of the alpha female, the fate of the Teanaway pack is now uncertain. This is a major blow to wolf recovery in the Pacific Northwest.
Defenders of Wildlife has been winning life-saving wildlife battles since 1947. But we are only as strong as our supporter base – people like you, who love wildlife and are willing to do their part.
Defenders of Wildlife and our conservation partners are offering a reward for any information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the wolf’s killer.
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