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Repeat of wolf kill unlikely

Social acceptance ‘just not there’ for eliminating all pack members

Killing seven members of a wolf pack that repeatedly attacked a Northeast Washington rancher’s cattle cost about $76,500, according to preliminary state figures.

The amount includes all hunts targeting the Wedge Pack, which is believed responsible for killing or injuring 16 calves last summer belonging to the Diamond M Ranch in Stevens County.

During a four-day period in September, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spent $22,000 to kill six wolves in the pack using a helicopter and a marksman. The aerial hunt was more efficient than an earlier ground-based effort, which consumed 39 days, cost $54,500, and resulted in only one wolf being caught and killed, state officials said.

The cost estimates were in a department letter sent to state Sen. Kevin Ranker, chairman of the legislative committee overseeing the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Ranker, an Orcas Island Democrat, has criticized the department’s decision to remove the entire pack. He’s planning a hearing during the legislative session that starts in January to review the decision.

Future department actions to remove an entire pack are likely to be extremely rare if they occur at all, said Madonna Luers, a Fish and Wildlife department spokeswoman in Spokane.

“Our director (Phil Anderson) has said that he never wants to do this again,” Luers said. “… The social acceptance is just not there.”

Wildlife officials said wolves in the Wedge Pack had become habituated to preying on cattle, but the decision to kill all pack members remains controversial. People protesting the department’s actions showed up at last month’s Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Olympia, which had to be moved to a larger hearing room.

Anderson and three other department staff were recently in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, where ranchers, government agencies and nonprofits are working to reduce wolf/livestock conflicts.

When a wolf pack starts to prey on livestock in the Blackfoot Valley, government officials there move swiftly to locate the pack and shoot a couple of wolves from the air as they’re feeding on the carcasses. The goal is to send a message to the remaining wolves that livestock aren’t viable prey.

Washington officials will try out the method during future livestock depredations, Luers said. “You hit (the wolves) hard and early,” she said. “They’re smart animals and they’re pack animals” that adapt to what’s happening in their environment.

Wildlife officials are also stepping up use of nonlethal methods for keeping wolves away from livestock. The department and Conservation Northwest, an environmental group, already share the cost of a range rider in Northeast Washington to protect livestock from predation by the Smackout Pack, Luers said.

As part of its legislative proposals, the department has suggested hiring a wildlife conflict specialist to work with Northeast Washington ranchers. The specialist could work on projects with bears and cougars as well as wolves, Luers said.

After the killing of the Wedge Pack, a dozen wolf packs remain in Washington. Wolves are re-establishing themselves in the state nearly a century after they were exterminated through hunting, trapping and poisoning. The new wolves are migrants from Canada and from other states.

When the state was developing a wolf management plan, officials estimated that Washington would spend about $400,000 on wolves annually. The state has spent about $376,000 on wolf activities this year, including culling of the Wedge Pack.

Money for wolf management in Washington comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state funds through the sale of specialty license plates.