Shooting Wolves in Washington State

By Neva Knott

Not good. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last Wednesday, August 20, 2014, that it would have to use lethal methods to control the Huckleberry pack because of depredation of sheep in Eastern Washington. Over the weekend, WDFW sent up a sharp-shooter in a helicopter to take four members of the pack, in hopes these deaths would deter any further attacks on the sheep herd. As of August 25, WDFW reports one wolf is dead.

This is the second such instance of WDFW-ordered wolf take. In 2012, the Wedge wolf pack was killed by WDFW because of cattle depredation. Not only did we lose wildlife, the kill cost the state $77,000.

I am pro-wolf. I’ve read all of the current science on the issue, have studied the history of human-wolf interaction and co-existence, and have interviewed people on both sides of the issue. What science says in the here and now is that wolves, and other top predators, keep ecosystems healthy and functioning. The presence of wolves in Eastern Washington doesn’t create a small change in the overall health of the region’s entire ecosystem; rather, it controls significant factors of the ecosystem. Other wildlife is healthier, vegetation and flora are healthier, streams are healthier, and the overall ecosystem works more systematically. The film, Lords of Nature, and the project’s website give good explanation to the ecological purpose of top predators.

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Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

The pervasive belief on the other side of this issue is that humans are the top predators who control the ecosystem. Not true.

Washington State does have a fairly forward-thinking Wolf Management Plan, one that is very similar to Oregon’s and to plans of other Western states. Wolves have made their way here from other states on their own; they have not been reintroduced through any program. The primary aim of Washington’s plan is to facilitate, “a long term viable wolf population while addressing wolf-livestock conflicts.” Development of the WMP began in 2007 and the plan was adopted in 2011. It is based on extensive peer-reviewed science and addresses the concerns gathered in a 95-day public review process, during which time 65,000 people across the state commented. Most comments were in favor of wolves on the landscape. Most concerns were about wolf-livestock interaction.

Currently, gray wolves are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Washington, they are considered “delisted” yet threatened east of the Cascade Mountains, but are considered endangered on the west side of the state. WDFW has parced the state into three recovery areas where they will monitor wolf behavior and population growth. As the population increases, its status will change from endangered, to threatened, then to sensitive. Hopefully, eventually, the gray wolf will have no such status in our state.

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So what makes a wolf population viable? As of the WDFW 2013 Annual Report, there are about 52 wolves in thirteen packs, with five breeding pairs that produced twelve pups total in Washington. Delisting can happen when there are four breeding pairs in each of the three recovery areas, plus three additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years. Breeding pairs must produce pups that survive. Optionally, delisting can be based on four breeding pairs in each recovery area plus six additional pairs anywhere else in the state for one year. These numbers are based on a variety of methods of year-round monitoring.

In the annual report, you’ll find photographs, maps, and charts that document wolves in Washington. It’s worth a look.

The current conflict is between the Huckleberry pack and a sheep rancher, who is grazing his sheep on private timber land. There are new pups in the pack. The pack has taken down 22 of the sheep and has injured three of the herder’s guard dogs. This is a significant attack. Previous to this event, the depredation rate has been very low in the state. The 2013 Annual Report documents the next highest number to be seven cattle. In all of the reports I’ve read about wolf depredation, the rise in depredation correlates with pup season.

In the Environmental Impact Statement for the Wolf Management Plan, it is acknowledged wolf-livestock conflict is an area for further study. Here’s the rub–before wolves were killed off in the west so that the ranching industry could flourish, there was much more wide-open space, and much more wolf habitat. Now, the areas wolves roam–which can be about 300 square miles a day–are fragmented. Roads, clear-cuts, parks, ranches, break up the area of cover. Part of the conflict is that wolves more often come across human space, and sometimes, there’s a tasty food source, like sheep, just standing there. Sometimes, habitat fragmentation means that the ungulates wolves naturally prey upon, such as deer and elk, are not around.

Though it is sad that Phil Anderson, director for WDFW, ordered the kill, it is somewhat encouraging to know that the sheep herder and WDFW worked closely together and with wolf experts to stop further depredation after the first attack. After several scare tactics were tried and found unsuccessful, WDFW agents worked with the herder to move his sheep to a new location. When that failed to stop the wolf attacks, agents, the sheep herder, and a reporter from KING 5 news camped out to watch for the wolves, in an attempt to scare them off the herd. It was after these efforts that Anderson sent up the sharp-shooter.

I’m not saying that I agree with Anderson’s decision, though I do see how he arrived at it. In following the wolf issue in Oregon and now in Washington for the past four years, I do feel the WMP’s of each state are appropriate, but I do think more can be done to manage within the parameters of wolf behavior.

For example, one goal of Washington’s WMP is to protect den areas when pups are known to be there. My question in this situation is why was this particular herd grazing in high timber land when WDFW knew there were pups in the Huckleberry pack?

Second, what’s the availability of deer and elk as prey in the area? Again, the WMP includes a goal to manage prey populations so that wolves have enough food available that isn’t livestock.

Third, what pre-planning was done with the sheep herder, knowing that the pack was in the area and that pups were likely?

There’s a relationship between the sheep herder’s land as wolf habitat, available prey, and birthing of pups that I haven’t read enough about in WDFW press releases or in news coverage.

I’ve written an email to Mr. Anderson and have left a voicemail for Craig Bartlett, WDFW’s contact on media releases, seeking answers to these questions. If and when I get a response, I’ll write a post to share it.

If you would like to make your voice heard on this issue, please write to director@dfw.wa.gov

Even though the idea of wolves eating all of one’s livestock is frightful, it’s important to know that wolves kill relatively very few livestock animals. Wild Earth Guardians reports that only four percent of sheep deaths in Oregon (no statistics for Washington are available) are caused by carnivores–to include wolves, coyotes, bear, cougars and dogs. Health problems and cars kill many more cattle and sheep than do wolves. For me, this in addition to the cost to taxpayers for killing wolves swings the balance in favor of letting wolves live and expecting the ranchers to change their ways even a bit more.

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Image courtesy of Wild Earth Guardians.

The issue that seems to have raised much of the ire around Anderson’s decision is that not much publicity was given to it. The kill order hit the news cycle as it was happening. Although the WDFW departmental reply was that it was following the WMP, the public feels it had a right to know before the sharp-shooter went up. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson was following the steps outlined for wolf-livestock conflicts. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson sort of flew by the outreach and public education mandates. Even if the kill order was the next step in keeping the sheep safe, the public needed to be helped to understand why.

Even though I have these curiosities and agree with the general consensus about Anderson’s kill order being too much of a clandestine mission, I do–at least for now–think Washington has a viable Wolf Management Plan in place.

I also want to mention that Defenders of Wildlife is very active with all states that have wolves, and provide many cost-share programs designed to help with wolf-livestock conflicts. Their site also provides solid basic wolf facts.

Wolves are a hot-button issue here in the west. It’s my hope, in writing this piece, that people will form informed opinions. There’s a lot of propaganda out there, and a lot of emotion on both sides of the issue when it comes down to the news alert that a sharp-shooter is in a helicopter, gunning for a wild animal.

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Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

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