A Stevens County family moved 1,800 sheep off private grazing land over the weekend to protect their flock from wolves that have killed at least two dozen of the animals this summer.
Dave and Julie Dashiell decided to get their sheep to safety rather than wait for state wildlife officials to track down and kill up to four wolves from the Huckleberry Pack, which is at least six strong and hunts north of the Spokane Tribe reservation.
The ranchers tried everything to thwart the attacks, said Jamie Henneman, spokeswoman for the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association, which is working on behalf of the Dashiells. They had a full-time herder, four guard dogs, range riders and extra help from state employees, but confirmed wolf kills kept mounting, Henneman said Monday.
“There’s a point where you’ve got to decide, do you leave and hopefully stay in business, or do you stick around until there’s just nothing left,” she said.
The Dashiells know of 24 sheep they lost to wolf attacks the past few weeks and fear the actual toll could be twice that number.
On Sunday they pulled their remaining sheep off rangeland they leased from Hancock Timber Co. northeast of Hunters in southern Stevens County. The animals were moved, with assistance from state employees, to a temporary pasture and soon will be trucked to their winter range, about six weeks earlier than planned, Henneman said.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department shot one of the wolves, an adult female, from a helicopter on Aug. 23 and set out traps in hopes of removing up to three others from the pack. But the agency pulled its traps before the Labor Day weekend to avoid conflicts with recreationists and grouse hunters.
The state responded quickly to assist the Dashiells once it was clear wolves were attacking the flock, said Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager for Fish and Wildlife.
When wolves start preying on domestic sheep, losses can add up quickly, Martorello said Monday. “The alarm bells went off for us,” he said, and the agency worked with the rancher daily on preventing more attacks.
Now that the Dashiells have removed the sheep, the state will re-evaluate what to do next, Martorello said.
“We’re certainly concerned about the behavior, the repeated depredations,” he said. “We did remove one wolf; we don’t know if we’ve broken that pattern of depredation, that prey-switching from natural prey to sheep.”
Henneman said the cattlemen’s association sees this as a case of the state falling short of protecting livestock producers.
“If this is the precedent – that Fish and Wildlife refuses to control their animals, that the rancher has to leave – we have a private property rights crisis here,” she said. “That means anyone that owns land out here … it means you’re going to get kicked out, the predator has precedence.”
Henneman also noted that other land and livestock owners in that area may be at risk from the Huckleberry Pack.
“As soon as that pack figures out that their 1,800 sheep are gone, they’re going to move on to the next site,” she said. “This is not the end to these troubles.”
Until recently the pack had spent most of its time on the Spokane reservation but now is more active north of the reservation. The Dashiells did not know the pack was that close until the attacks began, Henneman said.
Fish and Wildlife plans to reach out to neighboring livestock owners to discuss the pack and offer help to try to prevent more attacks. The agency also is evaluating compensation for the Dashiells for the sheep injured and killed by wolves.