Lethal action to protect sheep from Huckleberry wolf pack FAQ

On Aug. 23, 2014, a marksman contracted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) shot and killed a female member of the Huckleberry Wolf Pack, which had been preying on a flock of 1,800 sheep in northeast Washington. WDFW authorized the action after preventative measures employed by the rancher and the department failed to stop the attacks. To prevent further losses, the sheep rancher moved his flock out of the area Aug. 31. 

Why did WDFW find it necessary to use lethal measures to respond to attacks on sheep by the Huckleberry Wolf Pack?

During a three-week period in August, wolves from the Huckleberry pack killed or injured more than two-dozen sheep in multiple attacks on sheep grazing on private and public timberlands in Stevens County. These attacks continued despite efforts by the rancher and WDFW wildlife-conflict staff to deter conflict using preventative measures such as guard dogs, spotlights, and nightly patrolling of the flock.

WDFW is committed to the recovery of gray wolves in Washington, but the department also has a responsibility to protect livestock, pets and public safety. For these same reasons, the other eight states with gray wolf populations have also found it necessary to take lethal action in some cases to remove wolves that prey on livestock. Despite those actions, wolf populations are either stable or growing in all of those states.

How can WDFW be certain that the Huckleberry wolf pack was responsible for killing the rancher's sheep?

Wolf experts from the department confirmed that wolves were responsible for the attacks based on the sheep's wounds, tracks and other evidence at the scene. Wildlife managers suspected the Huckleberry pack was involved, because the grazing site is within the pack's territory.

This was confirmed by signals from a radio collar (GPS and VHF) attached to a male wolf in the pack and used to track the pack's movements. Signals from the collar showed that the wolf was at the site of many of the attacks. Other evidence, including paw prints, number of kills, and direct observation of wolves in the area showed that other members of the pack were also involved.

What preventative measures were used to prevent predation on the flock before taking lethal action?

As a first step, the rancher did not turn his flock out onto leased grazing land until late June, when more natural prey was available. Throughout the grazing season, the rancher and his wife kept watch over their sheep, aided by four large guard dogs. He also took steps to avoid creating "unnatural attractants" such as carcass pits, which can draw wolves and other predators to areas with livestock.

After confirming that wolves were attacking and killing sheep, WDFW dispatched a team of wildlife-conflict specialists to help the rancher round up his sheep and guard them at night, using high-powered lights, paint balls and rubber bullets. They also helped to bury or remove dead and injured sheep when that was possible.   As the attacks continued, WDFW contracted two experienced range riders to help bolster human surveillance of the sheep day and night.

Why didn't the rancher move his sheep out of the area sooner?

Finding a place to move 1,800 sheep at the end of the summer grazing season is no easy matter. The rancher's lease on a private timberland in Stevens County ran through October, at which time he planned to move his flock to leased winter range in the Columbia Basin. Finding an interim short-term option proved difficult, especially at a time when thousands of acres of grazing land had just been scorched by wildfires. He ultimately arranged to move his flock to its winter range sooner than expected.

It is important to note that neither the state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan nor WDFW's own protocols require ranchers to move their livestock off of an allotment to address wolf-livestock conflicts. While the department helped to facilitate this move, it is not always feasible for a rancher to move livestock out of the vicinity of problem wolves. 

What was gained by killing a member of the wolf pack?  Did it stop the predation by the wolves?

The pack's predation on sheep declined immediately after a female member of the pack was killed Aug. 23, and no fresh carcasses were found after Aug. 26. By comparison, nine sheep were killed or injured the day before the female wolf was removed, and 12 sheep were found dead one day the previous week.

The radio signal from the collared male wolf showed that he – and presumably the pack – had withdrawn to tribal land several miles away from the grazing area after Aug. 27. The helicopter made passes over the area through Aug. 26 and WDFW personnel set traps through Aug. 29, which likely helped to keep the wolves away from the flock.

How can WDFW kill wolves if they are listed as an endangered species?

WDFW's action with regard to the Huckleberry pack is consistent with state and federal law, Washington's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan and the department's own protocols for lethal action.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protection for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act in the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, as well as all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The federal action left wolf recovery and management in those areas to the states, including the area of Washington where the Huckleberry pack attacked on the rancher's sheep.

Under Washington state law, wolves remain listed as an endangered species throughout the state. However, RCW 77.12.240 authorizes WDFW to remove or kill wolves and other wildlife that are "destroying or injuring property," regardless of the protective status of those species. The state's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan further states that "lethal control of wolves may be necessary to resolve repeated wolf-livestock conflicts and is performed to remove problem animals that jeopardize public tolerance for overall wolf recovery."

Wolves in eastern Washington are connected to the North Rocky Mountain distinct population segment so WDFW's action poses minimal biological risk to the recovery of wolves in the state.

WDFW initially said it would not actively hunt members of the pack, but authorized an aerial gunner to kill four wolves two days later. What changed in that time?

A major factor was that two more sheep were killed in two separate events during that time. Under WDFW's wolf-management protocols, the department may consider taking lethal action after three separate depredations, provided that non-lethal measures were already in place. After the fourth confirmed depredation event, the department authorized the rancher and staff to remove up to two wolves observed in the vicinity of the flock. The fact that another attack – the fifth confirmed depredation – took place despite heightened preventative precautions moved the decision in favor of lethal action involving a helicopter. On August 23, nine more dead or injured sheep were discovered, constituting a sixth depredation event.

Another consideration under those protocols is whether WDFW staff believes the attacks are likely to continue without lethal action. During each of the two nights following the initial directive, GPS signals from the collared wolf showed that he was in or near the flock. Other wolves were also heard in the area, leading WDFW staff to conclude the attacks would continue, despite the addition of two range riders, up to four guard dogs and other protective measures in effect.

Does WDFW still plan to kill three more members of the Huckleberry wolf pack as authorized?

Not at this time. WDFW's director authorized that action to break the cycle of predation on the rancher's livestock. This was largely achieved by killing the female wolf and harassing the rest of the pack during the helicopter operation and trapping efforts. However, the authorization may be reinstated if the pack turns its attention to neighboring livestock operations.

How will the death of the breeding female wolf affect the future of the pack?

A recent study of 70 wolf packs in Alaska found that two-thirds of the packs stayed together after losing a breeding member, female or male. In those cases, another wolf – either from inside or outside the pack – usually assumed that role. The study also found that "most packs maintained cohesion and reproduced despite breeder loss, indicating a high degree of resilience and replacement of breeders."

That is a likely scenario for the Huckleberry Pack, due to its size and the time of year the breeding female was killed. With 10-12 members, the pack may already have a candidate for that role. The fact that the breeding female was killed in August after prime pup-rearing season (May-July) but well before next year's breeding season (January-February) also bodes well for the cohesion of the pack.

If the pack does dissolve, its members will likely form new packs or join an existing pack. In either case, the Alaska study found that "population growth rates were largely unaffected by breeder loss and pack dissolution despite reduced reproductive rates …"

The study referenced above is titled "Impacts of Breeder Loss on Social Structure, Reproduction and Population Growth in a Social Canid," published this year in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Did WDFW warn the rancher that his grazing area was in the pack's territory?

A WDFW conflict specialist contacted the livestock operator in 2013 to discuss potential risks from wolves in the area and ways to address them. The pack's territory is displayed on the department's website, and the rancher is a member of WDFW's Wolf Advisory Group (WAG), which had additional information about the Huckleberry pack's location. As an experienced sheep producer and a member of WAG, the rancher would have known the pack was in the area.

Will WDFW compensate the rancher for his losses?

Yes, the department has offered to compensate the rancher for animals lost to wolf predation, consistent with the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. However, WDFW cannot provide compensation for associated issues such as disruption to his ranching operation.

According to WDFW's website, Washington's wolf population increased by just one wolf last year. What does that say about the pace of wolf recovery in this state?

That number, by itself, doesn't reveal very much about the continuing growth of the state's wolf population. It is simply a comparison of the 52 wolves observed by WDFW biologists during a two-month period for the 2013 report compared to the 51 wolves observed during those months the previous year. It's a minimum count, which does not reflect the actual size of the state's wolf population or the variables (e.g. weather conditions, staffing) involved in compiling those numbers.

More relevant to the growth of the state's wolf population is the addition of four confirmed wolf packs in 2013, which should boost pup production this year. While minimum counts may vary from year to year, the fact remains that the number of wolf packs, breeding pairs and individual wolves has shown steady growth since Washington's first wolf pack was documented in 2007.

Does WDFW expect to see more conflict with wolves as the species expands its range?

Yes, conflicts are likely to increase as the state's wolf population continues to grow, just as they have in the eight other states with gray wolf populations. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 20 percent of the wolf packs in the western states have preyed on livestock, suggesting that conflicts will increase as more packs form in Washington state.

On the other hand, that assessment indicates that most wolf packs do not attack livestock and that coexistence is possible in many areas. In 2013, WDFW hired nine new wildlife-conflict specialists to work with ranchers to incorporate additional non-lethal deterrents to wolf predation into their livestock operations. Since August 2013, the department had entered into cost-sharing agreements with 33 livestock producers, who have made a commitment to take proactive steps to avoid conflicts with wolves.

WDFW is also working with dozens of other ranchers to protect their livestock from attack, by loaning them fladry, deploying range riders and other non-lethal assets. In all, the department is investing more than $800,000 per year to manage wolves and help ranchers implement non-lethal measures to prevent conflicts.

Despite these efforts, the experience in other states indicates some conflicts with wolves are inevitable, and that lethal measures are sometimes required to address them. As stated in Washington's own Wolf Conservation and Management Plan: "Lethal control of wolves may be necessary to resolve repeated wolf-livestock conflicts and is performed to remove problem animals that jeopardize public tolerance for overall wolf recovery."