The U.S. Forest Service asked a federal judge Monday to dismiss a suit filed by wolf advocates who want to drive the Diamond M Ranch’s cattle out of the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington.
The wolf population grows annually, undercutting claims that forest officials are shirking their duty to prevent attacks on cattle that lead state wildlife officials to kill wolves, U.S. attorney Emma Hamilton said.
The suit tries to hold the Forest Service responsible for the state’s actions, Hamilton told U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson in Spokane. “The Forest Service does not participate in lethal removal in any way,” she said.
WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and Kettle Range Conservation Group claim the Forest Service has failed to evaluate how cattle grazing affects wolves. The suit specifically targets grazing by the Diamond M, the region’s largest cattle ranch.
The Diamond M has grazed cattle in the Colville forest since 1945. The ranch has permits to turn out 736 cow-calf pairs, or 1,472 head of cattle.
Wolf packs saturate the region, and wolves began attacking Diamond M cattle in 2008. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has killed wolves in an attempt to stop chronic attacks on Diamond M cattle several times.
The groups bringing the lawsuit claim lethally removing wolves causes their members psychological harm.
In a court filing, Western Watersheds state director Jocelyn Leroux said she went camping in the national forest, saw large piles of bear scat and was excited to think about the possibility of nearby grizzlies.
She said she also found ample signs of livestock, including cow manure. “Yet, this is not why I — or most other members of the public — visit public lands,” she said. “I visit for the aesthetic and spiritual values of being in vast, wild spaces that are increased by ecological integrity.”
Previously, wolf advocates have sued in state courts, alleging Fish and Wildlife’s lethal-removal protocol violates state environmental laws. State courts have upheld the department’s mandate to handle dangerous wildlife and kill wolves as a last resort.
The federal suit claims the Forest Service’s alleged inattention to how grazing affects wolves violates the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act, Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedure Act.
Wolves are not a federally protected species. The Forest Service said it relies on Fish and Wildlife to determine whether a rancher has done enough to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts.
Federal land managers lack the information to do more to keep cattle and wolves apart, according to a Forest Service brief. “WDFW often keeps den and rendezvous sites confidential or shares information only with producers,” the agency stated.
The Diamond M has intervened in the lawsuit. The ranch’s attorney, Chris Montgomery, told the judge that the ranch agreed with the Forest Service’s arguments.
Peterson said she will consider the arguments and issue a written ruling.
At the end of 2020, Washington had at least 178 wolves, according to a combined count by Fish and Wildlife and the Colville tribe on its reservation in northeast Washington. The wolf population has increased 12 straight years by an average of 26% a year, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Tribal hunters killed eight wolves in 2020, while Fish and Wildlife removed three wolves.