CLE ELUM, Wash. — An Ellensburg rancher who lost a cow to wolves in Central Washington says he still believes his cattle can co-exist with the returning predators.
“I’m not excited about it, but it doesn’t matter whether I’m excited,” rancher Sam Kayser said Tuesday. “We’re stuck with them. I want to think there’s room for all of us.”
Kayser lost a yearling Angus in mid-July to the Teanaway pack in Kittitas County, the state’s most-western pack and one of its best tracked. Three wolves in the pack, which may have as many as six members, have been fitted with collars transmitting their locations.
Kayser’s range-rider, Bill Johnson, gets updates three times day. He said the attack showed the difficulty of protecting 400 cows grazing over 40,000 acres from predators that he called “incredibly smart.”
“I don’t think it could have been prevented, no way,” he said.
Kayser and Johnson met with the media at the Teanaway Community Forest, near where the depredation took place on state grazing land. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife arranged the meeting with Kayser and Johnson as part of a presentation on how the agency is managing wolves.
The forest is about 100 miles east of Seattle and is the western edge of the gray wolf’s dispersal since being reintroduced to Idaho and Wyoming in 1995.
Because the Teanaway pack roams in the western two-thirds of Washington, it’s protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. If Teanaway pack wolves continue to prey on livestock, shooting them isn’t an option, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Four cows were killed in early July by the Dirty Shirt pack in northeast Washington, where wolves have only state protection. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has indicated that if the pack kills one more cow, the agency will offer the rancher a permit to shoot up to two wolves.
WDFW hopes it won’t come to that. Range-riders are WDFW’s No. 1 preventative measure, but they have not been universally embraced by ranchers.
In an interview Wednesday, Stevens County rancher Scott Nielsen agreed human presence can keep away wolves, but the wolves may merely move toward somebody else’s livestock.
“Show me the evidence a range-rider has prevented one single attack,” he said. “It plays well in the press, but I’m just highly skeptical.”
Johnson has been riding for Kayser for 18 years. For the past three years, his wages have been partially funded by the environmental group Conservation Northwest.
He described himself as “pro wolf” and said he hoped ranchers will adapt to wolves. He acknowledged managing wolves won’t be easy. They don’t seem to be afraid of him, and they know where the livestock are, he said. “It doesn’t matter where we run the cattle, the wolves have a way of knowing.”
The Teanaway pack was documented in 2011 and one depredation is “not the end of the world,” said Kayser, who has been compensated by the state for his cow.
“One is a lot different than five or six,” said Kayser, noting the next depredation may occur in 10 years or next week. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “So far, we’ve been successful. But we have enough habitat for the wolves we have.”
Kayser said he sympathizes with northeast ranchers, who graze livestock on ranges with more wolves. “I think there’s a real problem up in the northeast corner of the state,” he said. “The northeast part of the state is carrying too much of the impact.”
WDFW has contracted with five range-riders and Conservation Northwest has shared costs with ranchers to employ seven more.
Budget restraints and the difficulty of recruiting people for the seasonal work have limited the number of range-riders, WDFW wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said. “I think we have a need for more.”