Wolves drove northeast Washington’s largest sheep rancher off grazing land. The question now is whether wolves will do the same to the largest cattle ranch, the Diamond M.
The attacks aren’t just on federal lands in the summer. They now last into the fall and take place on private ground. Len McIrvin, whose grandfather started the ranch in 1943, figures the Diamond M will lose 70 head to wolves this year.
Dead and injured cows and calves are only the most obvious losses.
Cattle are underweight after a summer of being chased down from mountain pastures. The percentage of cows who don’t get pregnant over the summer has risen, and that translates into fewer calves in the summer.
These are the losses that are seen. Unseen is the time spent finding and bringing in stray cattle scattered by wolves. Also, it wolves kill a 3-year-old cow, there goes maybe seven years of producing calves.
The damage has been going on for a decade now.
“We’re pretty tough, but there’s a limit,” said McIrvin, 75. “The losses are terrific.”
McIrvin does not blame wolves for the trouble. Ranchers can handle predators, but they can’t win a popularity contest with wolves, he said.
“The people in Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma and probably Portland, Salem and the whole Pacific Coast are so brainwashed,” McIrvin said. “I think animal worship is alive and well in America today.”
McIrvin said the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife needs to show more grit. The department has been too slow and removed too few wolves, he said, and as a result, livestock losses are perpetual.
The anti-ranching movement preceded the reintroduction of gray wolves into the West. Earth First coined the battle cry, “Cattle Free by ‘93.” 1993 was two years before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapped wolves in Canada and released them in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.
“The wolf thing is more effective than anything they’ve thrown at us,” McIrvin said. “Every year could not have gone better for people who want to get cattle and sheep out of the back country.”
Fish and Wildlife draws shapes on a map to indicate a wolfpack’s territory. The northeast corner of Washington has filled up with overlapping shapes. For many years, ranchers and community leaders, particularly in Ferry and Stevens counties, have said that wolves are a problem. For the most part, the rest of the state has shrugged.
From a distance, ranchers have an easy way out. Fish and Wildlife has a program to compensate ranches for losses that can be attributed to wolves. To get money, ranchers must document losses and comply with requirements related to managing cattle. The department paid out $3,700 in 2017, according to its annual report.
The Diamond M won’t apply. The compensation program dims opposition to a growing wolf population. But neither ranchers nor the state can long afford to raise livestock to be destroyed by wolves, McIrvin said.
“There’s no way we can run cattle by taking their money.”
Sheep rancher Dave Dashiell feels the ongoing financial sting of wolves when he gets a check for wool.
He once grazed as many as 1,200 ewes in northeast Washington. In 2014, Fish and Wildlife confirmed wolves killed 28 of his sheep. It’s widely accepted that only a fraction of wolf attacks on livestock are confirmed. Dashiell figured he actually lost about 300 sheep to wolves.
Fish and Wildlife shot one wolf and left the rest of the pack in place. The next month, state wildlife managers held a public meeting in a Seattle suburb and heard complaints that they shouldn’t have killed the one wolf.
Meanwhile, across the state, Dashiell had withdrawn his sheep from the private timberland where the wolves were attacking the flock. He hasn’t come back. He has about 400 ewes now. The flock is small enough to keep close to his home.
He said that a recent payment for wool was for about $17,000. If he had as many sheep as he once did, the check would have been for about $50,000, he said.
“It ends up being a lot more than a few dead sheep,” he said. “I’m still bitter, or whatever you want to call it. I’m mad.”
Dashiell said he can’t take his sheep back to wolf territory because non-lethal measures do not work for long.
Maybe, he added, a dozen dogs might be effective if they were “the biggest, meanest, SOBs you could find.”
Maybe not. Wolves have mauled two of his dogs.
Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen, a Stevens County rancher, said he does not think the Diamond M will be driven out of business. “They are good and efficient ranchers, and they can make it where others can’t,” he said.
But if the largest cattle ranch can’t run in some places because of wolves, competition for remaining pastures will increase, Nielsen said. “I think it’ll squeeze out other people.”
The Diamond M can afford to feed a few thousand head because it grazes cattle in the north in the summer and trucks them away from the snow to graze in southeast Washington in the winter.
McIrvin said he would prefer if he and his family, including his partners, son Bill and grandson Justin Hedrick, didn’t have to split the year between two homes, but the economics of larger cattle operations require it.
The Diamond M is reputed — by others, not McIrvin — to be the largest cattle ranch in Washington. It isn’t the only one losing livestock to wolves, but it’s apparently suffering the most losses and is certainly the most vilified by some wolf advocates.
Nielsen said he believes some of the antipathy stems from Diamond M’s resilience, a sign that ousting cattle in favor of wolves won’t be easy.
“Any other rancher would be out of business and have moved on,” Nielsen said. “They are a tough bunch, and if they can’t make it, there isn’t any outfit that can make it in this area.”
Fish and Wildlife has lethally removed wolves several times because packs were attacking Diamond M cattle, primarily in the Colville National Forest but also recently on private land. Fish and Wildlife says the ranch takes steps to prevent conflicts with wolves and that lethal removal is a last resort. Still, Diamond M figures prominently in complaints that Fish and Wildlife shoots wolves too readily to appease ranchers.
McIrvin has not shied from making his case in public. Fish and Wildlife shields the identities of ranchers who lose livestock, including the Diamond M. Most ranchers lay low, but not McIrvin. “The media needs somebody to talk about the other side,” he said.
Anonymity, remaining faceless, handicaps ranchers in the court of public opinion, McIrvin said.
“My feeling is you better stand up and be counted,” he said. “The bureaucracy will roll over you if you don’t make a stand.”
Some environmental groups this summer opposed culling the Old Profanity pack in the Colville National Forest on the grounds that the department shot seven wolves on the same allotment in 2016. The environmentalists complained there must be something wrong if wolves had to be shot again.
The Diamond M has used the allotment since 1949. McIrvin’s grandfather Harry, father Clive and uncle Bob first hauled cattle there in a cloth-topped Army truck. The problem, McIrvin said, is that “what worked for us for 70 years, no longer works.”
The attention paid to the allotment created the perception that it was particularly prone to conflicts between cattle and wolves, McIrvin said.
Wolves are attacking cattle in many places and culling packs faces stiff opposition no matter the rancher losing livestock.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands went to Thurston County Superior Court this year to stop Fish and Wildlife from shooting wolves in the Togo pack, as well as the Old Profanity pack. Fish and Wildlife attorney Michael Grossmann vigorously defended the cullings, arguing they would not harm overall recovery and were necessary to preserve social tolerance of wolves. In both cases, Judge Carol Murphy declined to intervene and block the operations.
A larger claim is unresolved: Whether Fish and Wildlife’s lethal-removal protocol is illegal because it didn’t go through a formal environmental review. A hearing before Murphy may take place early next year.
The environmental groups base their legal arguments on the State Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act. Their case is spiced with declarations from Center for Biological Diversity members who question why Fish and Wildlife should be so protective of ranchers.
“I do not understand that. It is not a large part of our culture or economy,” a Spokane man declared, who also said he believed wolves are more intelligent than people and that he has a deep spiritual connection to them. “Oh my god, it would affect my whole life if we lost wolves again. It would be devastating,” he declared.
If the ruling goes against Fish and Wildlife, the department may not have a lethal-removal protocol in place when the summer grazing season begins. Some environmental groups say that shooting wolves hasn’t proven effective in stopping depredation on livestock anyway, while non-lethal measures are effective.
Researchers have been studying how well lights, flapping ribbons, cleaning up cattle carcasses and having more people around herds work. The question of whether killing wolves actually increases attacks on livestock may be a central feature of the hearing in front of Judge Murphy.
Nielsen, president of a group that represents cow-calf producers, dismisses with a barnyard expletive the idea that lethal removal spurs more attacks on livestock. McIrvin said that losses to wolves have been minimal in one area since Fish and Wildlife removed seven wolves in the Wedge pack in 2012. “That Wedge deal has been a success story,” he said.
McIrvin said that since then Fish and Wildlife has been too concerned about the politics and stalled in removing wolves.“You know, as bad as the Washington state wolf plan was, if the department was honest enough to follow it, we’d be OK,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife will consider killing wolves after three depredations on livestock in 30 days or four in 10 months. It’s not a hard line. “There is a uniqueness to every situation,” Fish and Wildlife wolf policy coordinator Donny Martorello said. “It’s not just a check-the-box process.”
Martorello said the department considers all Washington residents to have a stake in wolf recovery, not just those living near wolves. “We want to be government by the people for the people — transparent, inclusive, so we want to engage a diversity of communities,” he said.
Ranchers say that preventing wolf attacks is in their interest. The alternative is getting tangled up in public fury. A rancher losing cattle to the Togo pack declared in a court filing that he wasn’t fond of wolves, but accepted the fact they were there.
“We are trying to do everything we can do to prevent depredations, and to do so by the book. At all times, we wanted to avoid any conflicts or controversies that may come with a lethal-removal action,” the rancher declared.
Initially another judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Fish and Wildlife from shooting a wolf in the Togo pack. Murphy lifted the order, but not before the rancher encountered a wolf. He said he wounded it in self-defense. The department later shot and killed the wolf.
Washington’s policy has been to welcome wolves, on the condition that Fish and Wildlife minimize livestock losses. The department, however, must minimize losses without “negatively impacting” recovery, according to the state’s 2011 wolf plan.
“I think the wolf plan has turned out 100 percent successful for the environmental people, and 100 percent unsuccessful for the cattle industry,” McIrvin said.
A key feature of the wolf plan is that wolves will remain a state-protected species until there are at least four breeding pairs in each of three zones: Eastern Washington, the North Cascades and the South Cascades. To qualify as a breeding pair, a wolfpack must have two pups survive to the end of the year.
The plan was made when Washington counted 18 wolves. In the most-recent count, the state had at least 122 wolves. The 577 percent increase in the wolf population has not yet translated into much progress in reaching recovery.
At the end of 2017, Eastern Washington had 13 breeding pairs and the North Cascades had one. The South Cascades does not have a known wolf, let alone a breeding pair.
To hasten the day wolves can be taken off the state-protected list, lawmakers this year directed Fish and Wildlife to study trapping and moving wolves to the Cascades or other suitable places. The bill passed with the support of some Eastern Washington legislators and westside lawmakers who represent urban districts that will never have wolves.
Although translocation would be intended to relieve pressure on northeast Washington ranchers, McIrvin said he doesn’t supporting sending wolves west. That will hurt Western Washington ranchers and not change the public’s opinion of wolves, he said. “A majority of voters would still never see them.”
Of course, voters have seen images of wolves. French researchers published a paper this year ranking the 20 most charismatic animals in Western societies. The rankings were based on surveys of school children and “internet users,” as well as zoo homepages and Disney movie posters. The wolf ranked ninth, right behind the polar bear and just ahead of the gorilla.
McIrvin goes against the grain, calling the wolf “mangy.” After years though of being plain-spoken, he confesses that he doesn’t know what else he can say.
“We’ve about exhausted our thoughts,” he said. “I use to think the truth would ultimately prevail, but it doesn’t seem to matter.”
He said this sitting in his pickup at the Diamond M’s winter headquarters near the Columbia River in Benton County. His college-age grandson, George Wishon, was crammed in the backseat. George’s father, Ted Wishon, is a rancher.
George Wishon said that if the Diamond M goes out, other ranches would be in danger too. To environmentalists, he said. the Diamond M’s demise would be a “humongous trophy.”
“A lot of smaller guys can’t fight it like they do,” he said.