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Dr. Robert Wielgus: The wolf wars in Washington can easily be prevented

Once again, wolves in the old Profanity pack territory (OPT) are being lethally controlled by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife because of livestock depredations by wolves in the same grazing allotment of the Colville National Forest. By my reckoning this is the third year in a row and the fourth time that wolves are being killed by WDFW on behalf of the same rancher, in the same general area. This one ranch has suffered about 90 percent of the wolf depredations of cattle in Washington and is responsible for 4 of 5 wolf packs eliminated in Washington. What gives?

The state funded and mandated research by my lab, and I reported to the WDFW and the Wolf Advisory Group that 10 of 10 ranchers and about 800 of their radio-collared livestock in the same general area as above suffered no livestock losses (0 percent) for a period of 2 years. The 10 ranchers cooperated with me and my research group and the WDFW conflict staff to prevent or reduce losses … and it worked! Total losses of livestock to wolves, including both cooperative and noncooperative ranches, were one-third of 1 percent (0.003) over a period of three years. At the same time, the above ranch suffered losses at least 10 times greater than the other ranches in the same general area. Why the huge difference?

This particular rancher refused to sign and abide by the terms of a WDFW Damage Prevention Agreement, and that is his legal and regulatory right. Damage prevention agreements request that ranchers avoid placing salt blocks and grazing cattle on or near (1 mile) wolf denning and rendezvous areas – because wolves are restricted to such areas because of limited mobility of pups. Concentrating cattle on or near den sites and rendezvous will likely result in wolf depredations on livestock. Indeed, my research group reported zero (0 percent) losses to wolves over 3 years in northeast Washington if livestock were kept at least 800 meters away from den and rendezvous sites. The United States Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in northeast Oregon stipulate that ranchers do not graze cattle within 1 mile of known wolf denning or rendezvous areas on public forest service lands. Sadly, such is not the case in the Colville National Forest of northeast Washington and WDFW. Nonetheless, most ranchers avoid known denning and rendezvous areas in northeast Washington – limiting or eliminating losses to wolves. It’s a no-brainer.

In the Profanity pack and OPT area, this particular rancher had salt blocks and cattle concentrated directly on den and rendezvous sites. In both cases, salt blocks and cattle were not removed from the known wolf concentration areas before, during or after the depredation events. In Profanity pack, the salt blocks were not removed until after WDFW began trapping and killing wolves. Salt blocks were never removed in the OPT incident. In both cases, cattle were left to graze on the den and rendezvous sites during the depredations until the end of the grazing seasons or all the wolves were killed. The results were predictable. Numerous livestock depredations and the resulting killing of wolves.

Following the Profanity pack debacle, I recommended to the WDFW and the WAG that “lethal removal of wolves on public lands for livestock depredations on public lands, not be conducted on behalf of ranchers that refuse to sign and/or abide by the terms of a WDFW cooperative damage prevention agreement.” My recommendations were not implemented by Donny Martorello, Wolf Policy Lead for WDFW. Instead of holding this particular rancher to account, Mr. Martorello publicly defended him, extolled his virtues and cooperation, and continues to kill wolves on his behalf. As a result, we have recurring, annual livestock depredations and killing of wolves in the same area on public USFS lands for the same rancher, year after year after year. Contrary to the popular belief of chronic widespread wolf depredations on cattle in Washington, it’s basically a one-man war on wolves in Washington.

Under the leadership of Donny Martorello, we have been watching the same slow-motion train wreck year after year after year, in the same area, for the same rancher. Both the other ranchers and wolves in northeast Washington deserve better. For whatever reason, Mr. Martorello refuses to enforce common-sense measures (as recommended by my research team and adopted by the USFS and the ODFW in northeast Oregon) on this powerful and politically connected (Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wacounda) rancher.

It’s time for Mr. Martorello to go. He should be removed from his post as Wolf Policy Lead for WDFW and replaced by a level-headed, common-sense biologist who will stand up to the outrageous provocations and demands of this one rancher. The rancher should be made to sign and abide by damage prevention agreements or not have wolves killed by WDFW on his behalf. Failing that, his public grazing lands privileges on USFS lands should be revoked. There is no need for this ongoing crisis to occur. All we need to do is replace an ineffective Wolf Policy Lead at WDFW and hold one irresponsible rancher to account.

Robert Wielgus is a former professor and director (retired) of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University. This guest opinion is issued by Dr. Wielgus as a private citizen and does not express the positions of Washington State University in any way.


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