Capital Press File
A researcher’s close encounter last month with a wolf in north-central Washington was a rare event, but ranchers say they occasionally see and more often hear barking wolves, an experience one rancher described as “eerie.”
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen said he suspects wolf encounters have gone unreported because people don’t want to face public scrutiny.
“I think they would be doing their community a service if they were to face it,” Nielsen said Friday. “Wolves are a public safety issue. It’s an animal that is opportunistic and eats meat.”
Wildlife biologists have described the July 12 incident in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as unusual, yet also expected from a pack protecting pups. The U.S. Forest Service researcher said she tried to leave when she came face-to-face with a wolf, but the howling animal cut her off. She climbed a tree and called for help using a satellite phone.
She was swiftly rescued by a state Department of Natural Resources helicopter crew, though state wildlife biologists initially opposed disturbing the pack with a chopper, preferring to coordinate a ground rescue that could have taken two to three hours.
The head of Conservation Northwest’s wolf program, Jay Shepherd, said wolf sightings are rare, but the incident highlights the need to be on-guard when venturing into wolf territory. Knowledge about wolf behavior can help, he said.
“If you haven’t been around wolves, they can scare the hell out of you, and if you’ve been around wolves, they can scare the hell out of you,” he said.
“Don’t act like their natural prey,” he advised. “I would not try to outrun a wolf. I would stand my ground.”
The day after the rescue, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Gregg Kurz and state biologist Ben Maletzke found evidence the Forest Service employee had unknowingly walked into the pack’s rendezvous site, where adult wolves stash pups for the summer. Kurz said they found rabbit entrails, small paw prints and little teeth marks on a tin can.
They picked up strong signals from radio collars worn by two wolves and tried to flush the wolves into the open.
“We purposely tried to elicit a reaction because this behavior seemed really odd to us. So we walked toward them and pressured them to see if we could get them to respond in a similar manner to us, and that did not happen,” Kurz told Okanogan County commissioners in a meeting to review the incident.
“We know we were well within 100 yards of where they were and just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. They paralleled us and then headed up over the hill silently. We never heard a peep, never saw them.
“Based on that, we felt it was defensive behavior and not aggressive behavior,” Kurz said. “We determined it was a rendezvous site, and they were just trying to warn that person away from the area and escort her into the distance.”
No human has been attacked by wolves in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming or Montana since the animals were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website. Wolves mauled a woman to death in Alaska in 2010, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A 22-year-old man was found partially consumed by predators in 2005 in Saskatchewan, Canada. A University of Calgary biology professor said he had no doubt wolves killed the man.
Stevens County rancher Arron Scotten said the first time he heard wolves near him was in 2016 when he came upon a rendezvous site.
“Apparently, I just got too close and next thing I know I was getting barked at something fierce,” he said. “It was eerie.”
Stevens County rancher Rocky Mullen said he recently saw three wolves on a Sunday morning circling about a dozen cows near his home. The wolves left as he approached.
“They’re thick,” he said. “We used to not think anything of going down to the creek to fish without taking a pistol, but now we do.”
Authorities declined to prosecute a man in southeast Washington in 2015 who said he shot a wolf from the front porch of his cabin to protect his wife and dogs. A man in northeast Washington attested in 2014 that he was surrounded by a wolfpack.