In the thick forests of the Colville National Forests and wild mountains of northeast Washington, where the majority of the state’s wolves live, the controversial animals are starting to den.
With the birth of wolf pups, a cycle that’s repeated since 2008, when the first wolf pack was confirmed in Washington, will restart.
Wolves will kill cattle grazing on public lands. Ranchers will suffer. The state may intervene, possibly lethally, as it has in the past by killing wolves.
One Spokane-based conservation group believes it has a solution.
“Public land grazing is probably not going to go away,” said Chris Bachman, the wildlife program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council. “But we need to start doing it in a way that reflects that we have predators again.”
The Lands Council is proposing that ranchers who have grazing allotments on the Colville National Forest shift their cattle from higher allotments to lower-elevation ones.
At the same time, Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, said the Colville National Forest and ranchers should start partnering to find, or make, open grazing space for cattle.
When forested areas are thinned, ranchers could move their cattle into the area. That, he said, would allow the cattle to be more easily protected by range riders and reduce wolf conflicts.
“When you look at the history of things, and you can look at historical records, what you find there were a lot more natural meadows than there are now,” Petersen said.
The two believe a current Colville National Forest project presents the perfect testing ground for their theory.
A 10-year forest thinning project, called the A to Z project, already features collaboration between the Colville National Forest and private industry. Vaagen Brothers, a logging and timber operation with mills in Colville and Usk, is slated to help thin the forest and is paying for the environmental review of the project.
The A to Z project was held up in court after the Alliance of the Wild Rockies sued to stop the project. But last August, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it could proceed.
With crews already planning to thin the forest, Petersen said it’s the perfect opportunity to test grazing cattle in clearer, lower areas.
The proposal is still in its infancy, Petersen and Bachman said. But they are starting to reach out to ranchers and others in the hopes of collaborating.
“The focus of that will be to engage ranchers and try to open that door of cooperation and help,” Bachman said.
But the idea, which has circulated in years past, will likely meet some resistance.
“I think the cattleman would look at it with a lot of suspicion. It’s an idea that has been kicked around for the last couple years,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda.
“There is a lot of suspicion. You don’t just erase that overnight. But I would welcome them if they want to be productive on it. It’s always good to have more people at the table looking for solutions.”
Kretz represents parts of north Spokane County as well as Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry counties and part of Okanogan County. Those counties contain most of Washington’s wolves.
He said in the past the Lands Council has been antagonistic and unwilling to work collaboratively with ranchers on wolf issues. That said, the idea has merit and he’s open to thinking and working toward it.
But there are issues that would need to be addressed. Many of the ranchers have been grazing their cattle on specific National Forest allotments for nearly 100 years. In that time, they’ve grown accustomed to starting their herds down low in the spring when there is lush, nutritious forage. As the summer heats up, they move the herds higher as the lower elevation forage dries out.
“They’re not excited about giving that up,” he said.
Jay Shepherd, the wolf program lead for Conservation Northwest, sees the project as a good long-term solution, but not one that will solve this season’s conflicts.
“The fruits might be down the road a little bit,” he said. “Which doesn’t make it a bad idea.”
But, like Kretz, Shepherd said ranchers won’t be easily convinced.
“It’s not something they really want to do,” he said. “It’s a hard presentation to say, ‘Don’t use your full allotment.’ ”
Thinning the forest in the Colville National Forest area is necessary, Shepherd said. Up to 6,000 trees can grow per acre, creating vicious competition for sunlight and moisture on sites that once had open, park-like stands of ponderosa pine and western larch.
Shepherd used to work for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as a conflict specialist and was based in northeast Washington. He said any proposal that “steps into someone else’s business model” has to be a voluntary discussion.
What’s more, the social acceptance of wolves is more strained, he said. With continued livestock killings, ranchers are growing increasingly fed up. That necessitates first focusing on the short term.
“Tolerance is going down and the clock is ticking on it,” he said. “Given that the clock is ticking on, it perhaps we should say, ‘Yeah, put this in the long-term folder.’ ”
In a written statement, the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association said their members who graze on National Forest land already abide by strict federal guidelines and management. Additionally, in the statement they said grazing can reduce forest fire danger by reducing forage.
“It is not helpful or constructive for an outside group with no cattle management experience, like the Lands Council, to be speaking up with ‘ideas’ about managing cattle on public lands,” the Cattlemen’s Association statement said. “Discussions like these mislead the public to thinking that public lands grazing does not have proper oversight, which is false.”
As proof of the Lands Council’s commitment to collaboration, Petersen pointed to several coalitions the Council has been part of, or started, including the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the Panhandle Forest Collaboration and the Shoshone-Benewah Forest Health Collaborative.
He said that involving “the ranching community in Northeast Washington has been challenging,” with few ranchers showing up to meetings.
“I am hopeful that we can find ways to work together and find common-ground solutions to challenging issues such as predators and allotment management – including new grazing areas as we spoke about,” he said in an email. “In my experience, trust is built slowly by learning of mutual interests.”
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