Washington Wipes Out a Wolfpack

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A wildlife tragedy began in Washington State on last August, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that a wolf in the Wedge Pack had killed a calf on a ranch close to Canada. Afterward, the rancher said that wolves were continuing to kill or maim his cattle. Wildlife staffers examined his claim and acknowledged that 16 animals had been killed or injured.

But this is the real tragedy: By  the end of September, the entire Wedge Pack of eight wolves had been killed. The collared alpha male, shot from a helicopter, was the last to go. The pack was wiped out because the rancher dug in his heels. He refused to accept any reparation for his losses, insisting instead that the state’s management plan for wolves needed to be rescinded.

Under that plan, ratified in 2011 after nine elaborate public hearings across the state, ranchers may receive payment for two grown beef cattle, in the case of a confirmed wolf kill, or one calf in the case of a probable kill.

The plan also requires ranchers and the agency to attempt all possible non-lethal alternatives before they resort to killing wolves. State wildlife officials urge “livestock operators to enter into cooperative, cost-sharing agreements with the department that specify non-lethal measures.” State Senator Kevin Ranker, a Democrat, says it’s “inexcusable” that the state didn’t “exhaust” non-lethal methods first.

Before wolves can be taken off the endangered species list, the plan says, there must be 15 breeding pairs in existence statewide for three years. If the state hopes to reach this goal, it will certainly need to discontinue management by rifle barrel.

State agents now say they are ready to try something called Chemical Bio-scent (a smelly repellent) as a non-lethal measure.  There’s also a tool called Conditioned Taste Aversion, developed by biologist Lowell Nicolaus, which applies worming medicine to cow carcasses to sicken feeding wolves. In classic Pavlovian conditioning, wolves soon learn that eating beef turns their stomachs. Nicolaus has adapted this technique successfully to change the behavior of wild crows and raccoons, and also used it on captive wolves.

Yet the problem with the Wedge Pack is not so much wolves preying on cattle as it is the continued grazing of livestock on our federal estate. Especially during the summer, when the predation is highest, the rancher’s cows graze on public lands. That means American taxpayers pick up some of the tab for the herd. The rancher built his ranch, yes, but not without government help.

Taxpayers subsidize tens of thousands of U.S. cattle each year, and these cattle degrade the same habitats that are required by wolves’ native prey. Science shows that cattle — an exotic species in the West — displace deer, elk, moose, and other prey species. Grazing also undercuts sound wolf management efforts.

We believe money subsidizing cattle grazing would be better spent on wolf recovery — restoring the range to the way it was before public-lands ranching became an institution. Ask most fans of outdoor recreation if they would rather watch wild species than cattle in wild areas, and you know what they will say.

Wolves and other large carnivores are keystone species in functioning ecosystems. A study conducted in 2012 by Oregon State University researchers concluded that the absence of carnivores — wolves especially — harms the land. Elk herds in Yellowstone, for instance, pruned willows and shrubs far back until gray wolves were reintroduced. An unnatural dearth of large carnivores allows herbivores to disrupt natural checks and balances.

Another scientific line would be to design an interstate, even international, conservation and management plan. Such a plan would consider wolf populations all over the West.

There is a lot at stake for taxpayers. The state’s wildlife agency had to pay employees several weeks of overtime to chase down the Wedge Pack. A helicopter was in the air for four days. Sen. Ranker has asked the department for the final cost, as well as for a study of the comparative costs of lethal and non-lethal methods.

Whatever the price in blood, money, and mismanaged compassion, this was the result: An entire wolf pack was killed for the sake of one ranch and its rancher.

Wolves in the West are here to stay. They don’t comprehend state and national boundaries, but they understand their role in ecosystems. The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, the law of the land in Washington for now, is all the wolves have to protect them. The “conservation” part of the plan deserves a fighting chance.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News.

Laura Ackerman is a Spokane farmer and environmental activist; Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Wolf photo by Shutterstock

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{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Steve Weileman

    So the rancher dug in his heels…hmm, do we know whether he’s one of the one’s who’s herds are grazing on public lands?

    And if he refused reparation for his losses then I’d say at the very least he should be responsible for the cost of the ‘hunt’.

  • J

    so you established a pack just to take them out?
    what is it about the Wolf being here first that we refuse to understand?
    wolves hunt…cows are easy prey…but just “dig in yer heels” and you can get your way
    piss poor outcome

  • Louie Kiskowski

    This is gross. Public lands should not be a killing field for the little bit of nature left on this continent. He was offered recompense but he really wanted to shoot some wolves instead. I am not opposed to free-range cattle, or the consumption of meat. I am not a member of Peta or anything like that. I just do not see why we cannot live with losing some livestock so that wolves still exist.

  • Jeff

    If they get into my cattle I’m not calling Fish and Game, I’d just shoot the damn things myself.
    We cleared the US of them once for a reason.

  • Curtis

    Bottom line: The rancher shouldn’t have been letting his cattle graze on federal land. Shooting an entire pack of wolves from a helicopter is cowardly, sick, and a waist of good aviation fuel. I don’t know much about cattle farming in the North West, but I’m pretty sure this rancher could have put a lot more effort into guarding his cattle like any good rancher should. I know for a fact that fences, donkeys, and certain breeds of dogs are excellent deterrents against large packs of wild canines without even getting into the chemical deterrents. I don’t have the privilege of observing these animals where I live, folks almost completely eradicated the red wolf population in NC long ago. Don’t ruin this for another part of the world.

  • D

    Steve, I’m sure the rancher would have no problem poisoning them just as they did years ago. It’s alot cheaper. If you watched your livelyhood getting devoured, you might have a different opinion.
    J, the reintroduction of the wolf is a big mistake. If the wolf was allowed to repopulate on thier own than that would be natural. In 50 years, every square mile of the planet will be evaluated to maximise it’s use. The wolves will again be eliminated because they serve no purpose as a food source.
    Louie, You need to get out more. Nature is everywhere. Ranchers do not want to shoot wolves, they just don’t want them to eat thier cattle. Cattle are money. Each steer is worth about $1000. How would you feel if every year someone came into your home and stole $1000 off your property?
    Jeff, good luck with that. It means staying up all night because wolves are pretty much nocternal. They do most of thier killing in the middle of the night. Hunting them without a license is gonna get you a hefty fine.
    Curtis, Bottom Line…..try dealing with your own issues in NC before you try to solve our problems in the NW. The wolves have the backing of lots of wealthy people who don’t know the difference between a wolf and a coyote. They just think, oh wouldn’t it be nice to go out to Yellowstone and hear a wolf howl out in the forest…..these wolves are huge, they eat alot, they travel in packs and they don’t recognize boundaries. They have repopulated at twice the rate that scientists thought they would. I believe they should never have been reintroduced because they cannot be controlled by hunting alone. Most hunters are trying to get meat to feed themselves and thier families, they don’t want to shoot a wolf. Most ranchers just don’t want to have thier cattle devoured.
    Many people act like we can return nature to a point where it is just like it was before man showed up and screwed it all up. That will never happen, get over it. Human’s are part of nature and the changes we make are all part of what nature is today. We need to start looking at the whole planet and start evaluating how we are going to make it possible for us all to survive here for the next 500+ years. Cattle and wolves probably won’t be part of that equation.

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