This past summer, the wolves from the Wedge pack repeatedly attacked cattle on a ranch near the Canadian border in Stevens County, Wash. The predation occurred despite the best recommended non-lethal precautions the rancher could muster.
In an effort widely criticized by conservation groups, the state spent $77,000 killing seven wolves in the pack to deter predation. It may have been for naught, as there were signs of additional wolves in the area shortly after the hunt. Whether they are part of the pack, or are animals that have swept down from Canada to fill the void left by the hunt, is unknown.
We think a little more research is in order.
On its face it seems simple. Wolves are hungry predators, and cattle and sheep present relatively easy targets at dinnertime.
But it's more complicated than that, at least that's what the people at the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University say. Researchers and students from the Pullman facility study predators and how they interact with other animals, including wildlife and livestock. In Washington the lab has focused on bears, cougars and lynx.
Robert Wielgus, director of the center, says he's collected data on wolf and livestock interactions in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and has found that even when cattle and sheep are available wolves don't always prey upon them.
He would like to understand why each case is different. He says the determining factors could include animal husbandry practices, the ages of the wolves or sexual competition between them, the season, terrain and forest type.
By understanding the specific predators and their targets, Wielgus says he could determine the areas in Washington where conflicts are likely to develop and what can be done to reduce that conflict.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has consulted with the lab's staff from time to time. In February, the staff will be working with the department and WSU Extension to develop a program to train ranchers about what to do if wolves show up.
But to date, the lab's researchers haven't been asked to perform a study of wolf predation in Washington.
Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state primarily focuses on keeping up with the recolonization of wolves, identifying locations of pack activity and collaring them. He says any comprehensive study could be as long as two years down the road.
Though many ranchers would prefer to have free rein to kill wolves, we see no chance that solution will be offered by the state any time soon. At the same time, it seems like a waste of effort and money to kill off one group of wolves only to have it replaced by another.
According to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," if you know your enemies and yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
It seems to us that a little more information about how wolves and livestock interact on Washington grazing lands could lead to solutions more satisfying to all sides of the wolf debate.