Any doubts over the return of wolves to Washington were erased Friday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that a calf in northeastern Washington had been killed by one.
The livestock death is believed to be the first in Washington caused by a wolf since the predators were effectively erased from the state through bounty-hunting, poisoning and trapping in the 1930s.
The calf was brought down, and partially eaten, sometime after dark Sunday in a wooded pasture near the Stevens County border community of Laurier. Rancher Len McIrvin believes it’s at least the second calf killed by wolves on his Diamond M Ranch in recent days – not enough was left from another dead calf to positively determine its cause of death.
“We’ve known they were coming,” McIrvin said of wolves. “It was just a matter of time.”
A federal wildlife agent traveled to the scene Tuesday to study the carcass of the most recently killed calf. The agent skinned the remnants of the calf and photographed bite marks, said Tom Buckley, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Photos and measurements were also taken of large canine footprints found in the area.
The evidence was interpreted by experienced wildlife agents in Idaho, where wolf kills have been taking place since the predators were reintroduced a decade ago. The Idaho experts determined the calf had, in fact, been killed by a wolf, Buckley said.
Live traps were set on the ranch Friday in hopes of capturing the culprit. Because wolves in Washington remain protected as an endangered species – under both state and federal laws – agents hope to attach a tracking collar on the wolf in order to monitor its movements, Buckley said. There are no plans to kill it.
“If the animal continues to kill cattle and we can prove that’s the animal doing it, we’ll have to revisit that decision,” Buckley said.
The rancher is none-too-thrilled about the prospect of catching and releasing a wolf that has developed a taste for Diamond M beef.
“Turn him right back out with our cattle again? Crazy!” McIrvin said. “This is crazy that you or I cannot protect our livelihood, our stock.”
The state is currently developing a wolf management plan that includes provisions to relocate or kill wolves that eat livestock. The plan will not take effect, however, until wolves are taken off the federal endangered species act list. Delisting is expected to occur in the next year.
McIrvin is also eligible for reimbursement for the dead calf through a trust fund established by the conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife. The fund pays 100 percent of fair market value for livestock confirmed to have been killed by wolves, said Amaroq Weiss, director of Western Species Conservation for the group. Kills in which wolves are considered the “probable” culprits are eligible for 50 percent reimbursement.
Since the fund was established 20 years ago, it has paid out $888,000 to ranchers in five Western states, Weiss said. The idea of the fund was to reduce the pain born by ranchers for the return of wolves to the West. “We really empathize with how concerned and frustrated he must feel,” Weiss said of McIrvin.
But McIrvin said the reimbursement program is loaded with red tape. He also said proving wolf kills in the future is going to be difficult on his steep, thickly forested ranch. Often, cows aren’t known to be missing until the fall roundup.
“It’s not like a fenced, irrigated pasture in the Spokane Valley,” he said. “These cattle are running on big, big areas. Rough areas.”
Although McIrvin said he would support a carefully managed wolf population in the state, he said he’s frustrated that the decision to return wolves to the West was made largely by people with little economic interest in the decision.
“It took 200 years to get the West so we could raise stock and the families could make a living,” McIrvin said. “I don’t necessarily have that much against wolves, cougars or coyotes, but if the urban population of our state or nation feels they have to have these furry little varmints, that is fine, but I shouldn’t be the one to subsidize their desires or habits.”
Weiss, with the Defenders of Wildlife, said wolves have brought a variety of ecological and economic benefits to places where they’ve returned. In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, wolf predation on deer and elk has resulted in the resurgence of aspen and willow groves. Researchers have linked the changes to increased bird nesting sites, as well as more cooling shade and habitat for trout streams, Weiss said.
“For the huge trout fishing industry, that should be welcome,” she said.