Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife has promised Gov. Jay Inslee to try "previously unused tools" to protect cattle and avoid shooting wolves next year in the Kettle River Range.
The department did not specify anything new it might employ. The pledge responds to Inslee's complaint that perennially culling wolfpacks in the northeast Washington mountain range is unacceptable.
Fish and Wildlife describes the region as "saturated" with packs. It has defended killing wolves there as a last resort when ramped-up non-lethal measures failed to stop cattle losses from escalating.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Staci Lehman said Wednesday the department is starting to talk about and research other non-lethal ways to prevent depredations. "It is something that we've agreed to discuss over the coming winter," she said.
Inslee told the department in a letter Sept. 30 that he shared the concerns of environmental groups about repeatedly shooting wolves in the same area and asked for a response by Dec. 1.
In that response, Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said the department will meet with its Wolf Advisory Group, the U.S. Forest Service and ranchers to develop a plan by May 1.
In the meantime, according to Susewind, the governor could help by supporting Fish and Wildlife's request for more money. The money could be used for conflict management, law enforcement, helping ranchers deter wolf attacks and facilitate meetings of the Wolf Advisory Group, according to a department document.
"We look forward to working with the agency and other stakeholders on this important issue," a governor's spokeswoman said in an email.
Before killing wolves, Fish and Wildlife requires ranchers to head-off depredations, primarily by putting more people around herds. Other deterrence measures include fences, lights, flapping ribbons and quickly disposing of cattle carcasses.
Stevens County Cattlemen's Association President Scott Nielsen said ranchers would be receptive to new and effective measures.
"Man, if we really had something that helped, we'd be all over it," he said. "I don't know what (the department's) new tools would be, and I don't think they do either."
Susewind told Inslee that range-riders and cost-sharing agreements with ranchers to implement non-lethal measures were "critically important tools."
Nielsen agreed that increasing patrols can protect a particular herd, but the wolves still have to eat and may move on to less-protected cattle. He also said the growth in wolf population may more than offset an increase in range-riders.
"We're going to have to develop enough human presence to move the wolves west, where they don't seem to want to go," Nielsen said.
Kettle Range Conservation Group director Tim Coleman, a member of the department's Wolf Advisory Group, said more could be done before resorting to shooting wolves.
He suggested electric fences, bunching cattle in well-guarded pastures and fitting cows with GPS tags to keep a closer watch over them. He also suggested the public could pay to feed cattle as an alternative to grazing in wolf country.
"I'm certain the governor and others are asking the department for additional options," he said.
Fish and Wildlife has no firm rule on when it will shoot wolves. Department protocol calls for Susewind to consider authorizing removing wolves, usually one or two, after a pack attacks livestock three times in 30 days or four times in 10 months.
Wolf advocates and environmental groups are challenging the protocol in separate lawsuits in King and Thurston counties.