Wildlife agencies, sheriff investigate after wolves chase woman

Wolves chased a researcher up a tree in northern Washington state. She was rescued by a state helicopter crew.

The two wolves that chased a Forest Service seasonal employee up a tree in north-central Washington Thursday belong to the Loup Loup pack, a group known to have roamed grazing lands since at least 2015 but has not had a history of attacking livestock.

The researcher was preparing to survey streams when she was confronted about .6 miles from the pack’s den in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, officials said. The woman yelled, waved her arms and used bear spray before climbing a tree and radioing for help.

She was rescued by a Department of Natural Resources helicopter crew in a remote recreational and grazing area. Officials estimate reaching the woman by ground would have taken more than two hours.

“The Loup Loup pack has been present for a number of years, and historically they have been a more docile pack,” said Okanogan County Farm Bureau President Nicole Kuchenbuch, a rancher who grazes cattle in the national forest.

“I would say the incident was unexpected to some degree,” she said. “It means we shouldn’t be complacent.”

The confrontation and rescue occurred where wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wolves are not federally protected in the eastern one-third of the state.

The Okanagon County Sheriff’s Office reported getting a call about the treed woman at about 12:30 p.m. The sheriff’s office planned to send deputies and search and rescue. Deputies were told to shoot the wolves if they were still surrounding the woman, Sheriff Frank Rogers said in a press release.

“The sheriff’s office is responsible for the safety of those living and those who recreate in this county and will do a thorough investigation to get answers of what may have happened,” he said. “We are concerned that some may not be prepared or even know of the possible encounters with wolves, which may result in the danger of human life.”

Before deputies arrived, DNR dispatched a fire helicopter crew at 1:08 p.m. from Omak. The wolves were still in the area when the helicopter arrived, but the pilot, Devin Gooch, landed in a meadow, and the crew rescued the woman, officials said. The entire operation, from leaving Omak to returning, took about 45 minutes, according to DNR.

State Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Dan Christensen said that rumors the agency was more concerned about protecting the wolves than the woman were not true.

A state game officer was heading toward the site when the Forest Service employee was rescued, he said. Although wolves are a federally protected species, the state officer would have acted to protect the woman, he said.

“Her safety was paramount to all of us,” Christensen said. “We were very fortunate to have the DNR helicopter available.”

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Ann Froshchauer said the federal agency also makes human safety a priority. “If there is an immediate danger to human life or safety, that is paramount,” she said.

State and federal wildlife biologists hiked to the site Friday and concluded the encounter took place at the pack’s rendezvous site, Froshchauer said. Both wolves are wearing radio collars, she said.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spokeswoman Debbie Kelley said the incident took place several miles from the nearest campground. The agency has not closed any part of the forest to the public, she said.

The Loup Loup pack is one of three in the North Cascades. The state’s other 19 packs are in Eastern Washington, mostly in Ferry and Stevens counties to the east of Okanogan County.

“We in the Okanogan have not reached saturation levels like our neighbors to the east,” Kuchenbuch said. “You would have predicted this in the northeast corner of the state and not here.”

State wildlife managers can resort to culling a wolfpack to stop attacks on livestock in Eastern Washington, but federal wildlife managers do not have that option in the rest of the state, including Okanogan County. The state’s wolf plan calls for wolves to become more numerous in the North Cascades.

Monte Andrews of the Okanogan County Cattlemen’s Association said he welcomed the sheriff’s involvement in watching wolves.

“It’s something I know we’re going to be confronted with a lot more in the near future,” he said.

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