Why is the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) attempting to kill wolves in Northeast Washington?
The wolf pack in the “wedge” between the Columbia and Kettle rivers near the Canada border in Stevens County of northeast Washington has repeatedly preyed on livestock over the last three months and have not changed this pattern despite non-lethal efforts. After the sixth documented attack on cattle from the Diamond M Ranch by wolves in August, WDFW removed one wolf from the Wedge Pack in an effort to break the growing cycle of predation. As of September 17, 2012, a total of 15 confirmed or probable wolf-caused injuries or deaths to cattle were investigated. Western U.S. wolf experts agree this pack is now targeting livestock over natural wild prey. The department is prepared to remove additional wolves as necessary to protect area livestock.
What gives the department the authority to kill wolves? Aren’t gray wolves a protected species in Washington?
State law (RCW 77.12.240) 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. 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.
The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was approved just last year. How can the department justify killing wolves so soon?
Wolf numbers have increased quickly, especially in northeast Washington. As of June, a total of eight packs had been confirmed in the state and four other packs were suspected. The Eastern Washington recovery area already has six confirmed packs – including the Wedge Pack – and three other suspected packs.
WDFW documented six incidents of wolf depredation before removing the first wolf from the Wedge Pack, with an estimated 8 to 11 members. Two more calves were attacked before the department decided to remove additional wolves to help break the cycle of predation. This incremental strategy, recommended by Washington’s own wolf plan, has sometimes proven effective in other states.
Were non-lethal measures used to control predation by the Wedge Pack?
Yes. Several non-lethal measures have been taken at the Diamond M Ranch – both by the rancher and by WDFW – to control predation by wolves on livestock. In spring, WDFW also helped to install wolf-repelling “fladry” on a wire fence at a neighboring ranch where wolf sightings were also reported. Specific actions taken at the Diamond M Ranch include:
- Calving areas have been located away from the region to make calves less vulnerable to predation.
- Cows with calves were released onto the range later in the spring when they are larger and more natural prey is available to wolves.
- The rancher now employs five cowboys or “range riders” to help monitor the herd.
- WDFW has worked with USDA Wildlife Services staff to patrol range in mid-summer with the goal of driving any wolves away from the herd.
- Injured livestock have been moved off the range to recover, reducing the risk of attack.
The state’s wolf plan states that these pro-active measures offer a “partial alternative to lethal control,” but that “lethal control of wolves may be necessary to resolve repeated wolf-livestock conflicts.”
How does WDFW know that wolves from the Wedge Pack were involved in attacks on cattle?
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. Tracks, scat and howling near the site also support that wolves were responsible for the attacks.
Does WDFW follow a specific process in determining whether wolves were involved in an attack?
Yes. The department follows standard procedures for investigating any report of livestock depredation, whether by wolves, cougars, bears or other predators. In the case of wolves, WDFW also employs additional strategies that have been used successfully by state and federal management agencies in other states.
The department’s process for investigating reports of wolf attacks on livestock includes the following steps:
- When the department receives a report of a possible wolf depredation, at least one wildlife biologist and at least one enforcement field officer go to the scene to conduct an investigation. (Field officers have primary responsibility for responding to all reports of wildlife conflict.)
- The team members collect evidence and information on-site and complete a preliminary report, typically within 24 hours.
- The department convenes a review panel of predator experts from WDFW, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including experts from other western states with wolves. WDFW investigators review the case, and panel members ask questions and offer additional comments.
- The primary WDFW investigators consider all of the information to determine whether the injury or death was caused by a predator, which predator caused of the depredation, or if the cause was not identifiable.
As recommended in the wolf plan, WDFW is continuing to adapt this review process as necessary to improve decision-making about evolving management strategies.
Is WDFW concerned that killing wolves will set back the statewide recovery effort?
No. Wolves are very adaptable animals that can thrive in a variety of habitats so long as they have adequate food and are not exterminated through indiscriminant killing. Thousands of wolves have been killed in the Rocky Mountain states in recent decades, yet the species continues to recover in that region.
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 real danger to recovery is if people lose confidence in WDFW’s ability to manage wolves and take matters into their own hands.
How does WDFW decide when to take lethal action against wolves?
The state’s wolf plan describes lethal control as a necessary tool for reducing wolf depredation on livestock, but describes how and when it is appropriate. As stated on page 88 of the plan:
“If it is determined that lethal removal is necessary, it will likely be used incrementally, as has been done in other states, with one or two offending animals removed initially. If depredations continue, additional animals may be removed.”
Consistent with this approach, WDFW removed one wolf in August and announced its intention to continue incrementally as necessary to protect livestock. At each step, the department considers the following factors outlined in the plan:
- Pack size: Prior to taking lethal action, department estimated the size of the Wedge Pack at eight to 11 wolves – enough to sustain the loss of some animals. That estimate was based on a photo of four adults taken in late winter; the capture and release of the alpha male (radio-collared) and a pup (ear tagged) in July; observations and howling heard by WDFW wolf biologists from multiple adults and “young of the year.”
- Conflict history: The Wedge Pack attacked numerous cattle before WDFW took lethal action in an attempt to stop the growing cycle of depredation. Those attacks killed a calf in 2007; injured a cow and calf July 11; killed a calf July 12, injured two others July 14; injured a calf August 2; injured a calf August 14; and killed a calf August 16. Attacks have continued into September resulting in a total of 14 dead or injured cattle as of September 18.
- Natural prey: At the time this year’s attacks occurred, white-tailed deer were abundant, moose relatively common and elk present in lower numbers. Livestock were not the only option for the pack.
- Season: The Diamond M’s cattle are scheduled to be on the range until October, leaving them exposed to predation for months after the rash of attacks in the summer of 2012.
- Age and class of livestock: Most of the cattle were cow-calf combinations; most of the fatalities were calves, although cows were also attacked.
- Use of non-lethal tools: Area ranchers employed a variety of non-lethal measures (see earlier question-answer) – with and without the department’s help before WDFW decided lethal measures were warranted.
- Potential for future losses: WDFW determined future losses were likely, based on conflict history, the increasing frequency of attacks, and the fact that multiple attacks on livestock occurred after the first wolf was killed.
It appears that the attacks on cattle occurred on National Forest lands. Why would WDFW kill wolves that live on public land?
WDFW has a responsibility to control wolves regardless of where they may roam inside the state’s borders. This responsibility also extends to cougars, bears and other animals that can pose a risk to public safety and private property.