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Rancher: Being forced off private grazing land by wolves is wrong

Wounded sheep owned by Dave and Julie Dashiell are examined in a holding pen after being brought out of private timber company grazing lease in southern Stevens County where wolves killed at least 24 of the ranchers' sheep from a flock of about 1,800 in the last two weeks of August, 2014.
 (Stevens County Cattlemen's Association)
Wounded sheep owned by Dave and Julie Dashiell are examined in a holding pen after being brought out of private timber company grazing lease in southern Stevens County where wolves killed at least 24 of the ranchers' sheep from a flock of about 1,800 in the last two weeks of August, 2014. (Stevens County Cattlemen's Association)

UPDATED 1:30 p.m. with response to rancher from Conservation Northwest.

ENDANGERED SPECIES -- Following in this post is a just-released statement from northeastern Washington rancher Dave Dashiell regarding his experience with the Huckleberry wolf pack on private timber company ground he leased for grazing this summer.

As The Spokesman-Review reported this morning, the  Dashiells moved their flock of about 1,800 sheep off the grazing lease in southern Stevens County over the weekend after wolves had killed at least 24 sheep since mid-August.  Among the sheep they rounded up were several that had wounds, including a buck that may not survive.  "The cost for a replacement buck is $800-$1,000," says Jamie Henneman of the Stevens County Cattlemen's Association.

  • Moving the sheep is costly and the unplanned move from summer to winter range six weeks early could have consequences down the line, especially in a drought year, the association says.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife worked with the rancher to defend the sheep and launched a helicopter gunning operation to kill up to four wolves in the pack, which includes 6-12 members.  Wolves are otherwise protected by state endangered species laws. The department has been under intense pressure from pro-wolf groups to avoid harming the Huckleberry Pack.

Only one wolf was killed before WDFW pulled gunners and trappers out of the area for the Labor Day Weekend.  No more sheep have been reported killed since last week.

For more background on the situation, here's a sampling of my S-R blogposts in reverse chronological order:

Pro-wolf groups pressure Gov. Inslee to curb wolf control

Huckleberry Pack attacks more sheep in Stevens County

Ranchers: Wolf attacks shouldn't force sheep off private land

Wolf update: Huckleberry Pack avoids helicopter gunners

Helicopter gunners kill at least 1 Huckleberry wolf

State targets wolf pack

Wolves kill 14 sheep in Stevens County

Here's the Dashiell statement posted today:

This summer our ranch experienced a crisis that is becoming all too common in Eastern Washington. Our sheep herd became the target of pack of wolves determined to kill and maim as many animals as possible despite our hardest efforts to prevent it.

Our usual everyday management included what a lot of people call “non-lethal deterrents” including a full time herder, four Marema/Akbash/Pyrenees cross guard dogs that live with the herd full time and rotating the sheep in their grazing area. But these actions did not prevent the wolves from attacking our sheep. Once the Huckleberry wolf pack began feeding on our band of sheep in early August, the killing was relentless with 2-3 animals lost every day. Once the killing started, we called on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to help and they provided the addition of four Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel stay with the sheep to try and increase human presence. We also allowed  the department to provide a range rider to try and haze the wolves and allowed the Department to chronicle the wolf kills as they happened on nearly a daily basis. This experience has taught us two things: once wolves start killing livestock, no amount of effort can discourage them and don’t put too much trust in words.

Weighing how much words are worth is something I have gained more experience in over the last year in my participation in the WDFW Wolf Advisory Group (WAG). For the last year, I have served as a representative for the Cattle Producers of Washington on the WAG, oftentimes traveling to all-day meetings far from the ranch. The purpose of our committee was to help the Department find ways to prevent and address the kinds of wolf conflicts I am currently experiencing and we can see how well that worked. The WAG had  long discussions about non-lethal methods, compensation, protocols for lethal removal, the monitoring and collaring of wolves and many other topics, but in the end all of the talk did very little to help a person in my situation.

In addition to being part of the WAG group, I am also one of a group of producers who have asked WDFW for wolf collar data so we can manage our herds. In our case we received no response and other producers were asked to sign a contract with certain non-lethal management rules first as some kind of test on whether they deserved the information or not. Being denied this basic tool directly caused the wolf conflict situation our ranch experienced, as we were unaware that we were moving our band of sheep near a wolf den site. Had we had access to the information, we would have made alternate grazing plans.

Words have also failed us because they aren’t always backed with action. We were told that four wolves from the Huckleberry pack would be removed, but as of last Friday, Aug. 22, the Department called off the helicopter team after only one wolf was removed and shortly after pulled the trappers as well. Our ranch was left and high and dry to try to try and handle the situation ourselves while at the same time having our hands tied due to the wolf’s state endangered species status.

With no other choice, we moved our sheep to a friend’s pasture on Sunday where they will be held until we can move them to a new grazing location far from our current site. Having to make this kind of change in the middle of the summer has caused considerable stress, expense and hardship to our operation. The grazing lease we had arranged with the private timber company was good until the middle of October and now we have to move our animals and try to find an alternate spot at the last minute. 

Our animals are stressed, many are wounded and over 24 are confirmed as wolf killed. We had hoped to stay on the private leased ground, fulfill our contract, knock down the brush and weeds on the land to help manage it and move in the fall. Instead, we are being forced to leave early because WDFW will not follow through on their commitment to manage wolves and remove chronically depredating wolves. All the commitments from the Department meant nothing and again, words have failed us.

We don’t want to see this situation play out again on a different ranch in the county. The time for words is over, we need to see action. The Huckleberry wolf pack needs to be removed, not our sheep. By making us leave we are only passing the problem along to others in the area when the wolf finds their pets, animals and livestock.

I know from experience that continuing to talk about the wolf issue is futile. Our situation and others clearly shows that while non-lethal  “deterrents” or management methods may work for a short amount of time, but they don’t work forever and once wolves start killing livestock, that behavior cannot be stopped.

Removing problem wolves is part of wolf management and this reality has been accepted by other states. Washington needs to accept this as well.

If we allow people to be forced off the land, our economy and our communities will suffer greatly. We are asking our Stevens County Commissioners Steve Parker, Don Dashiell and Wes McCart, our Sheriff Kendle Allen, our County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen and our legislators Joel Kretz, Shelly Short and Brian Dansel to recognize that the time for words is over, the time for action is now.

Following is a reaction to the Dashiell statement posted on my post on Facebook from Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest:

It's interesting that Dashiel wrote, "Our usual everyday management included what a lot of people call “non-lethal deterrents”... I suppose that's true, in the same way the aspirin is a heart disease deterrent. It's great up until the point that more is needed.

Why would he need collar data to know that the Huckleberry Pack denned a few miles from that pasture? As a member of the WAG, and as somebody who can look at maps on DFW's website, not to mention somebody who can hear a howl or see a scat/track, he should have already known.

He doesn't mention that, as I understand it, before this field season he turned down offers of cooperative agreements and substantial resources (including a rider, collars, etc.) from WSU and also DFW. Nor does he mention that during the two or so weeks in which the pack was developing a refined taste for his mutton, Dashiel and his presumably experienced "herder" thought they were experiencing cougar issues.

But what bothers me most is that he describes this as "a crisis that is becoming all too common in Eastern Washington." Really? This and the Wedge Pack (2 years ago) make for two such crises, both with stubborn ranchers who resisted the resources to update their methods and prevent the situation. In the nine project seasons that Conservation Northwest has been involved in with more collaborative ranchers since 2012, our total number of depredations is ZERO.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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