A wolf pack that acquired a taste for cattle in northern Stevens County this summer is being targeted for elimination, Washington officials announced Friday.
“The Wedge Pack has turned to cattle as their primary prey,” said Steve Pozzanghera, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife eastern region manager. “We have no other alternative at this point,” he said, explaining the decision to escalate efforts from culling a few wolves to killing the entire pack.
An arsenal of tactics including guns, traps, snares – even helicopter gunning as a last resort – will be used against the pack of at least eight wolves, he said.
The effort will be difficult, he added, noting the pack has eluded traps and even guns fitted with night-vision scopes for more than a month.
“We’ve been working on this not quite 24-7, but almost,” said Capt. Dan Rahn of the agency’s police division. Two two-person agency teams were assigned to the area Thursday, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services experts, the Stevens County sheriff and an independent wildlife biologist.
“These wolves have become extremely wary,” Pozzanghera said. “The terrain is rugged and forested without a lot of significant openings.”
One Wedge wolf was shot by Fish and Wildlife officers Aug. 7, the first to be killed under Washington’s 2011 gray wolf management plan.
Eliminating a pack would be another milestone as wolves naturally repopulate their former range in the state. Even though wolves are protected by state endangered species laws, the plan allows for lethal removal of wolves that threaten life or property.
Since early July, the agency has confirmed that wolves have killed or injured at least 15 Diamond M Ranch cattle in the “wedge” area between the Columbia and Kettle rivers just south of the Canada border. Two more attacks were being investigated Thursday.
About 250 cows and calves have been pastured on private land this summer, while about 200 have been on a grazing allotment in the adjoining Colville National Forest, said Len McIrvin, ranch co-owner.
Most of the attacks have been on private land, he said.
Wolf conservation groups, including the Defenders of Wildlife, have accused the ranchers of not being proactive in preventing wolf attacks on their cattle.
“We have 40,000 acres of the roughest country with only one road looping through it,” McIrvin said.
“The (Fish and Wildlife) department has been there almost every day trying to counter this thing and we have six or seven people out there all the time, but having a human presence doesn’t deter the wolves. I don’t even try to answer people who don’t understand this isn’t like running cattle in an irrigated pasture.”
McIrvin said his family has received support from Stevens County officials, residents, businesses and media. On the other hand, he said, he’s received much criticism from people as far away as California who would rather see wolves than cattle on the landscape.
“They talk about guard dogs, get a donkey out there, put up an electric fence, hang flags – they have no idea what they’re talking about,” he said.
Jack Field, Washington Cattlemen’s Association spokesman, said his group is encouraging ranchers to work with the agency to find solutions, including the use of nonlethal measures, to minimize losses for producers as wolf populations grow in the state.
“But … managing and killing wolves that cause problems is an important part of a healthy coexistence,” he said.
Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest, a Western Washington-based group that helped shape the state’s wolf management plan, said he was disappointed that nonlethal deterrents weren’t exhausted earlier, but he agreed the Wedge Pack must be removed.
Pozzanghera said a new plan for grazing cattle will need to be explored before wolves move in from Canada to form a new pack in the wedge.
“There has to be a commitment on the part of all sides to allow wolves to occupy the landscape while protecting the rancher’s livelihood and maintain their ability to raise cattle,” Friedman said.
Don Dashiell, Stevens County commissioner, said effective wolf management is important to the entire area, not just the ranchers.
“Agriculture and the related natural resource industries, including hunting and fishing, are our ‘Boeing’ here in Stevens County,” he said. “With cattle being the largest segment of the ag economy, negative impact from any source also has ramifications for the associated supportive businesses here such as hay growers, farm supply stores, fuel suppliers, veterinarians and other needed professional services.”