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Sue Lani Madsen: Living with wolves takes guts, knowledge

Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It takes guts for a bureaucrat to act decisively without clear policy as a safety net. Fortunately for a young researcher treed by wolves, somebody had guts.

And it wasn’t somebody from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. WDFW needs clear priorities for managing endangered species when they endanger the public. Those priorities are critical as wolves rebound and plans to add grizzly bears proceed.

The Okanogan County Commissioners recently met with representatives from WDFW, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the confusion surrounding the rescue of a treed woman on July 12th. She was working alone, and had a satellite phone for emergencies. When she was threatened by wolves, she climbed a tree and called her supervisor.

The Forest Service called the Northeast Washington Interagency Communications Center, operated by the Washington Department of Natural Resources in Colville. The communications center primarily deals with interagency fire calls in the unincorporated areas of Eastern Washington. They dispatch ground crews, airplanes and helicopters.

The Forest Service supervisor wanted a helicopter. Okanogan County Sheriff’s dispatch and search andrescue wanted a helicopter. And the response from WDFW, according to the communications center dispatcher’s log was this:

“No helicopter, Federally listed species. 3 WDFW personnel saying no. Told them DNR going to the Director for approval. We are more concerned for her life than listed animal. He (WDFW bureaucrat) indicated that she is safe up in the tree and wolves are doing what they are supposed to do. I told him we do not know how safe she is. I don’t know how stout the tree is and if the limbs will continue to hold her or how long she can hold on. He said he has her SAT phone and has called but she is not answering.” By the time WDFW made the right decision, DNR had already acted decisively, launched the helicopter and delivered the young woman to the Omak Airport.

This is not an isolated Okanogan County problem. Every county in Eastern Washington is within 150 miles of known pack territory, and 150 miles is nothing to a wolf. It’s no longer about the clash between cattle producers and wolves on public lands. Wolves don’t care if the land is ranch or residential, public or private, on or off the reservation, south or north of the Canadian border or across a state line. They are here.

The last time we lived with wolves, we poisoned or shot them nearly to extinction. That option is off the table, but we need to be honest about the threat to human life. Not every hiker carries a satellite phone and is nimble enough to climb a tree. Wolf packs have already moved into the edges of communities like Colville.

Lack of transparency from WDFW and USFWS wildlife biologists was the major frustration for Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. “They keep secrets, don’t want people knowing, want to protect wolves,” he said. “You go to Wyoming or Montana, you know where (wildlife danger) is, they tell you what kind of weapon, what kind of preparation you need. Over here we don’t even tell people where they are.” The secrecy surrounding wolf pack activity and habits interferes with carrying out his responsibility for public safety.

“So how do we handle and prevent future public safety issues with wolves?” asked Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover. He pointed out Washington has seven times the population of Montana in half the land area, and conflicts will increase as both wolf and human populations rise. He advocates for state and federal agencies doing a better job of educating people on living with wolves.

Wolves are pack animals, territorial, can be aggressive – so what do you do when you hear yipping and howling near your backyard?

Humans are either predators or prey. Fatal attacks on humans have occurred in Alaska and Canada in modern times, usually when someone ignores the first rule of living with apex predators – only the food runs. If wolves are to survive, we must educate them to avoid humans. Habituated wolves are dangerous wolves, and end up being dead wolves when they cause conflict. And we need a robust discussion on priorities and prevention before we have the first recorded fatal attack in the lower 48 states.


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