The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had a muted response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s criticism that it shoots too many wolves, but the agency sought alternatives and studied for weeks before removing the OPT pack in the Kettle River Range, according to its records.
Department leaders ultimately concluded that eliminating the pack was faithful to the state’s wolf plan. In a July 31 email authorizing lethal control, Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind thanked Eastern Region Director Steve Pozzanghera and others for a thorough review.
“These decisions are never easy, but their professional analysis certainly helps,” Susewind wrote.
Fish and Wildlife subsequently killed the last four members of the OPT pack. Since 2012, the department has killed 27 wolves to protect livestock, many on federal land in the Kettle River Range.
Wolf advocates have been petitioning Inslee to intervene. On Sept. 30, Inslee told Susewind in a letter that annually shooting wolves in the northeast Washington mountain range was unacceptable.
Inslee asked Susewind, who answers to commissioners appointed by the governor, to report back by Dec. 1 on efforts to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts, including by working with the U.S. Forest Service.
The department didn’t defend its actions. It issued a statement saying it and the governor have the same goal. “We all share the perspective that something has to change to reduce the loss of both wolves and livestock in this area,” the department stated.
Fish and Wildlife records, filed to defend against a lawsuit brought by wolf advocates, show the department has been hard-pressed to come up with non-lethal measures not already used by ranchers.
Some in the department, while agreeing lethal control was appropriate, wanted to delay shooting wolves and put another state-contracted range-rider on the ground.
The recommendation that went to Susewind, however, noted that the ranch losing cattle, the Diamond M, already had help watching for wolves from a sheriff’s wildlife deputy.
Len McIrvin of the Diamond M said Thursday that range-riders haven’t been effective in stopping depredations. If range-riders patrol by day, the wolves attack by night, he said.
“There’s no such thing as doing a good job for a range-rider. It’s just politically appealing,” he said. “We’ve always had a range-rider in there, but it’s the same old thing. Non-lethals do not work, period. We’ve tried them all.”
The department attributed 29 attacks on cattle to the OPT pack, dating back to September 2018. Missing cattle are not counted. The department also doesn’t count cases in which scavengers pick the carcass and remove signs of wolf bites.
McIrvin said the Diamond M is still rounding up cattle from the range, but he suspects actual losses will be double or triple the official count.
Two other wolfpacks, the Togo pack in the Kettle River Range and the Grouse Flats pack in southeast Washington, have been attacking cattle owned by other ranchers and have been targeted for culling by Fish and Wildlife.
The OPT pack’s territory covered 226 square miles, and wolves had a history there of attacking cattle on an allotment leased by the Diamond M since the 1940s. Anticipating more conflicts, Fish and Wildlife and Forest Service officials met before the grazing season to discuss “possible creative solutions.”
Colville National Forest range staff officer Travis Fletcher said Wednesday that he doesn’t know of anything else to test, short of canceling grazing permits or closing allotments.
“Anything outside of that, we have tried,” he said. “I would say there’s not a producer we work with who hasn’t adjusted their practices in some way.”
The Forest Service won’t close allotments because wolves are not federally protected in the eastern one-third of Washington and aren’t in danger of become endangered or threatened, Fletcher said.
Ranchers have adjusted where and when they graze cattle, and taken other steps to distance their herds from wolves, without much success, Fletcher said.
“The wolfpack territories are very large,” he said. “You probably couldn’t throw a dart at a map of the Colville forest and not hit a wolfpack.”
A rancher grazing in the Smackout pack territory set the “gold standard” for range-riding, but still lost cattle to wolves, Fletcher said. Range-riders find dead or injured cattle, but, he said, “it’s not been proven to me it’s a preventive measure.”
In response to attacks on livestock, Fish and Wildlife shot one OPT wolf on July 10. The pack, however, continued to attack cattle. The department recorded seven depredations in the following two weeks, leading to the decision to remove the pack.
Fish and Wildlife calculated killing the wolves would not stop the state’s wolf population from growing this year.
Up to 28% of the wolves could be killed each year and the species would still progress toward recovery goals, the department figures. Fish and Wildlife counted 126 wolves at the beginning of the year. So far, the department suspects 16 have died, or 13%.
Between 2011 and 2018, about 10% died annually. That includes wolves harvested by tribal hunters, killed by poachers or that died of unknown causes.
The percentage was far lower than the rate of wolf mortalities in Idaho and Montana during similar stages of recovery, according to the department.
Montana had about 900 wolves in 2017, according to state officials, who have not yet released an estimate for 2018. Idaho does not count individual wolves, but recorded 90 packs in 2018. Washington has 27 documented wolfpacks.
Most packs are in northeast Washington. Fish and Wildlife calls the wolf population there “robust” and “secure.”