Ranchers live in the shadow of wolves
Updated: Saturday, September 22, 2012 11:09 AM
By MATTHEW WEAVER
LAURIER, Wash. -- On some evenings, Bill McIrvin will ride to the top of a ridge in the middle of his cattle range and let out a howl.
Most of the time, wolves answer back with their own howls.
"I'm just up there seeing if they're into our cattle and which bunch of cattle they're into," he said.
It's frustrating for the rancher, who raises 200 cow-calf pairs on 34,000 acres of private, state and federal land about a mile south of the Canadian border. Some of the livestock do not make it through the summer. The wolves attack and kill some and harass the others.
Six generations of the McIrvin family have lived on the Diamond M ranch, where Bill McIrvin is a partner with his father, Len McIrvin, and nephew, Justin Hedrick.
This summer the McIrvins have found five dead calves and estimate they've lost a total of 40 calves to wolves because of the number of mothers coming back dry, meaning they're no longer nursing calves.
The problem has gotten so bad the state Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has resorted to killing some of the wolves near the ranch. The McIrvins have had to bring in a quarter of their animals from the range because of the wolves and plan to bring in more.
The attacks are consistent with wolves, the McIrvins say, with bites primarily in the hindquarters and shoulders, with lots of wounded calves. Cougars are plentiful, but typically bite a calf in the face and rip them open behind the shoulder, while bears will bite them through the back.
On a 30-mile loop the afternoon of Aug. 23, they found five cow-calf pairs, with 150 still grazing elsewhere, unseen.
"We've found five dead ones, and I think we're very lucky, or unlucky, to have found them," Len McIrvin said.
State wildlife managers have decided to kill up to four wolves in the Wedge Wolf Pack near the McIrvin ranch to break up the pattern of depredation. Washington Fish and Wildlife Game Division manager Dave Ware said the pack is estimated to have at least four adults and several pups.
"The technique we're using is to basically reduce the food requirements of the pack," Ware said. "If you can remove enough mouths from the pack, then their requirements go down and they tend to take livestock less frequently."
Those efforts will likely last into next week, Ware said.
Ranchers can receive state compensation for two animals for a confirmed wolf kill and compensation for one cow for a probable kill.
Len McIrvin said the cost of wolves includes the loss of calves at $1,000 each, the cost of feed and vaccinations, cows that come back not pregnant and the cost of using additional winter feed for thinner animals in hopes they will rebreed next winter.
There's also at least $10,000 worth of extra labor to employ at least one cowboy each day all summer to work the massive range and survey for wolves.
The McIrvins have refused compensation from the state for their losses.
"If we take $100,000 from the department, that's us saying, 'It's all right for the wolves to be here as long as you pay us,'" Len McIrvin said. "It's not all right, they will put us out of business."
The McIrvins are in the heart of the wolf debate, but livestock industry officials say they won't be alone for long.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said the problems with the state wolf management and recovery plan -- wolf harassment and depredation, cattle weight loss, inability to use rangelands -- were all predicted by ranchers prior to its adoption in December 2011.
"It's unfortunately only going to be a matter of time until there's wider-spread depredations, bigger losses and this is going to be something that will go on for years to come," Field said.
"It's only going to get worse," said Nate Hair, Cattle Producers of Washington president. "These wolves travel, they're not going to stay in one particular area."
There aren't many options for ranchers, Hair said, noting those available have been at best unsuccessful. Under the Endangered Species Act, wolves are federally delisted in the eastern part of the state, and not in the western two-thirds, but Hair said the state is treating the animal as an endangered species.
"We're kind of handcuffed because people on the west side of the mountains think they're going to drive over here and listen to the wolves howl," he said.
Making wolves a priority over the livelihood of livestock ranchers is damaging the industry's ability to provide a quality product, Hair said.
"If the rancher can't stay in business and maintain his herd with high quality, he's going to get out of business," Hair said. "He can't afford to stay in it very long at these losses."
Field recommended industry members be fully engaged and work with the department to the fullest degree possible, taking advantage of landowner agreements, in which individual ranchers work with the state.
"We've been dealt a bad hand with the wolf plan and we need to do the best we can to make the most of it," Field said.
"They're wild animals; science has nothing to do with this," Hair said. "You can do all the scientific studies and research you want, at the end of the day, they make the decision what their actions are going to be. They're not a warm and fuzzy pet."
Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest executive director, said he remains unconvinced about McIrvin's efforts to manage his herd to reduce conflicts with wolves. He does not agree that there are no options for better herd management.
"We want to see more clarity, certainty, that wolves are responsible for these past incidences," he said. "We're aware there are experts raising questions and the field biologists are themselves not convinced that all, or perhaps even any, of these incidents are conclusively wolves."
Friedman believes the state is under pressure and needs to take more time. He accused McIrvin of alerting the media first, then the local sheriff's office, then the wildlife department while reaching out to county and state legislators to turn up the heat.
"Generally, when wolves are in the neighborhood, everything gets blamed on them," he said. "But when the evidence is in, it's a small portion of incidents that actually ends up involving wolves."
If it's not a wolf, Friedman isn't certain what would be the cause. While he admitted to hemorrhaging on the rear flanks and groin in one of the recent calf attacks, there were no puncture wounds in the hide.
"We want to work collaboratively, we want to make this work so ranchers are not overly impacted by the presence of wolves," he said.
Field said Diamond M is doing everything possible to protect their cattle. Anyone who says otherwise has no place to make such a statement, he said.
"That demonstrates their absolute disconnect from reality and their single agenda that has nothing to do with wolf management," he said.
The McIrvins have received six to eight hate calls, including blatant threats or people raving, Len McIrvin said.
"These people say get dogs, get donkeys, get electric fences," he said. "This is an impossible situation, at 30,000 to 40,000 acres of the roughest terrain where cattle are spread throughout."
Bill McIrvin isn't certain there's a way to get through to the wolf advocates.
"If they could realize the amount of time and sacrifice we've put into our animals," he said. "We're up through the night calving. ... We live with them day and night seven days a week. To have a predator come in and destroy everything we've worked for -- if there was some way they could see that."
The McIrvins blame part of the problem on a change in philosophy, reflected in the change of the name of the state department to Fish and Wildlife from Fish and Game.
"Now it seems like they're predator protection, and they do anything to enhance the predator population at the expense of the game," he said.
The McIrvins intend to keep ranching, in hopes that enough awareness will arise of the impact wolves are having on the industry.
Bill McIrvin is hoping for total removal of the Wedge Pack.
"Maybe we'll have a year or two reprieve before another cattle-killing pack sets up residence here," he said. "If we can get this pack removed, hopefully we'll have long enough that people in Washington can wake up and see what's going to happen to our game and our livelihood."