“How do you tell for sure it’s a wolf kill?” asked the rancher. Joe Bridges, wildlife conflict specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was the man on the hot seat Friday after a wolf was shot and killed while chasing cattle in Adams County.
Living with wolves is a new experience for people and their livestock in Adams, Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties. Northeast Washington has 16 confirmed packs. Three more occupy territory in the southeast. Any wolves spotted in the Spokane region were assumed to be lone wolves passing through, until three wolves were caught in the act of cattle harassment Monday, and one was shot.
It happened less than a week after Joey McCanna, wildlife conflict supervisor, presented his Wolf 101 class to more than 100 people filling Davenport Memorial Hall in Lincoln County. Among the topics covered were basic wolf habits, nonlethal deterrents, how to tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote, and what to do if you think a wolf has killed your domestic animal.
McCanna handled tough questions from a frustrated but civil audience. Several questions were prefaced by “Don’t take this personally, but …” followed by a complaint about wolf policy that was clearly out of his control. Then McCanna happened to mention he’s received death threats, and said he “never thought he’d be working so much with the FBI in this job.”
There was a pause in the conversation. A hesitant voice from somewhere in the now-quiet audience asked who was making threats. The tension dissipated when McCanna said it was pro-wolf activists, mostly out of state. Then local rancher Jennifer Singer told how she and her children had been threatened too, with messages like “We know where your kids get off the bus” and “You’re just going to kill and eat your calves, so why not kill and eat your kids.”
Nothing creates bonds as quickly as a shared enemy. Us against them.
The greatest friction is not between government bureaucrats trying to do a job and ranchers trying to earn a living. It’s between the people who love wolves and the people who live with them.
And that’s why Bridges found himself on a living room couch facing nearly two dozen concerned ranchers. As a wildlife conflict specialist, he implements and explains policies that are often driven by public perception instead of science. The threats are why WDFW now redacts the names of both their own staff involved in lethal removal and the names and locations of the ranchers who have suffered a wolf depredation.
Even simple hazing by chasing wolves can create a negative public perception, but hazing is essential to wolf recovery. Wolves that have not learned to avoid humans will eventually be dead wolves. Nonlethal deterrents work for a while but have to be changed up regularly to maintain effectiveness.
The wolf killed this week was one of three found chasing cows on private property. When approached by ranch hands shouting and yelling, two wolves ran off. One wolf stared back, then turned to continue the chase. Bridges confirmed the ranch hand had a legal right to shoot under state law, and did the right thing by calling WDFW to report the incident.
Jill Swannack, a veterinarian also attending the meeting, emphasized reporting attacks is essential: “If ranchers practice shoot/shovel/shut up, then no one knows the problem exists.” Swannack is also a sheep producer and lost animals to wolves in Whitman County in 2014.
There is limited compensation available for livestock losses, and not all producers are interested in getting involved with another pile of government paperwork. But they were all interested in how to identify a wolf kill site.
Bridges warned the answer to that question makes most people uncomfortable. Wolves attack by forcing one animal out of the herd or flock, getting it running. They come from behind and take a small bite from the haunches. Then they take another bite, and another, and another until the animal falls. And then they eat their prey while it’s still alive. Kill sites usually cover a lot of ground, tracing the route of the running battle.
For people who live their lives entwined with the lives of their animals, the description isn’t just uncomfortable. It’s unthinkable. Defending their livelihood is more important than bending to the demands of public perception from those who aren’t living with wolves. Even if it requires lethal force.
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