A death sentence has been issued for a portion of a wolf pack that’s killed at least 22 sheep this month in southern Stevens County.
Efforts to haze and deter the Huckleberry Pack from attacking a flock of 1,800 sheep grazing on private timber land have failed and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say they have no other choice but to target the pack.
In an effort to break the predation cycle, agency Director Phil Anderson said he authorized on Saturday the killing of four wolves from the pack, which is estimated at up to 12 members.
Officials will later evaluate whether that is enough lethal force to end the sheep attacks.
Gunners began flying the area near Hunters in a helicopter Saturday. A wolf was spotted, but at 4 p.m. officials said no wolves had yet been killed. A male wolf is wearing a radio collar that researchers attached to monitor the pack.
“As of Friday, we had confirmed that 17 sheep had been killed by wolves in five separate incidents, and we continue to find more dead and wounded sheep from the flock,” said Bruce Botka, agency spokesman.
On Saturday, crews found five dead and three injured sheep that were attacked Friday night, Botka said. Investigators confirmed that wolves were responsible for all of the latest attacks, despite night patrols and the use of four guard dogs.
Botka said the situation meets the state’s conditions for lethal removal of wolves, which are protected in Eastern Washington by state endangered species laws. The pack is one of about a dozen wolf packs confirmed in Eastern Washington.
“There have been repeated, documented wolf kills; nonlethal methods have not stopped the predation; the attacks are likely to continue, and the livestock owner has not done anything to attract the wolves,” he said.
Rancher Dave Dashiell, of Hunters, has worked with Fish and Wildlife staff to try to prevent wolf attacks on his flock, Botka said.
In the last week, four department employees, two federal staff and two contracted range riders have been working with the rancher to prevent additional attacks, he said.
“Despite those efforts, sheep continue to be killed by wolves,” Botka said.
Washington law allows ranchers to kill up to one wolf if caught in the act of attacking domestic animals. Last week, Anderson gave Dashiell and the agency staffers guarding the flock the authority to kill up to two wolves if spotted near the sheep even if they weren’t attacking.
On Friday night, conservation groups, including The Lands Council based in Spokane, appealed to Anderson to back off the authorization to kill wolves in the vicinity of the sheep.
“We appreciate the agency’s efforts to work with the rancher and use nonlethal means to protect sheep from further losses,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the wolf kill order needs to be rescinded right away. Killing wolves is just not an effective means of protecting livestock.”
The groups were angered by Saturday’s notice that the agency was targeting the wolves.
“Nonlethal measures, such as range riders and moving the sheep, were being put in place and should have been allowed to work before the agency moved to kill wolves,” Weiss said.
The events are reminiscent of the 2012 wolf attacks on cattle in northern Stevens County that didn’t end until the state was forced to use helicopter gunners to kill all seven members of the Wedge Pack.
Fish and Wildlife officials reported spending $76,500 to end the pack’s livestock attacks but not before at least 16 calves had been lost, mostly on private land.
The Huckleberry Pack, named for the nearby Huckleberry Mountains, was documented as a pack in 2012. The pack had not been associated with attacks on livestock until this month, officials said.