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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Judge declines to block killing of more wolves in the Kettle River Range of Ferry County

A collared member of the Nc’icn wolf pack as seen on May 30 near the Colville reservation in northeast Washington. (Hank Seipp / COURTESY)

A judge declined to block the killing of more wolves in the Kettle River Range of Ferry County on Thursday.

The ruling does extend a temporary restraining order on killing wolves in the Old Profanity Territory pack area in Northeast Washington. The decision comes after the same judge temporarily blocked the lethal removal of OPT wolf pack members last week.

The three individuals who filed the lawsuit asked the judge to block the “lethal removal action against all gray wolves in the Kettle River range of Ferry County,” an area that would have included the Togo wolf pack, which is credited with six cattle attacks or kills in the past 30 days, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to the order filed Thursday, “the Court is unable to extend the scope of the injunction to the entire Kettle River Range in Ferry County.”

Last week, WDFW announced it killed four of the five members of the OPT pack. It was later determined that the fifth wolf was traveling through and was not an OPT pack member.

The lethal removal order on the Togo pack remains in place, although WDFW spokeswoman Staci Lehman said department staff are not actively “seeking wolves” to kill.

“At this point, they have been trapping Togo wolves to collar,” she said. “But just to collar. We’ve kind of been on pause.”

Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead for WDFW, emphasized that the lethal action is ongoing in the Togo area.

On Friday, Lehman said there had been no recent Togo wolf attacks on cattle.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said Togo wolves attacked and killed a calf this week. The rancher, Jake Nelson, found the calf Friday on a Colville National Forest grazing allotment.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Aug. 1, alleges that the cattle ranchers and the state did not use nonlethal deterrents prior to ordering the killing of the OPT pack.

According to the preliminary injunction, “evidence presented indicates that in issuing the lethal removal or ‘kill’ order, WDFW failed to fully consider the apparent failure of the identified livestock producer, Diamond M, to take appropriate proactive nonlethal measures to avoid wolf-livestock conflict.”

WDFW’s lethal removal policy allows killing wolves if they prey on livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month period and if two nonlethal deterrents have already been deployed.

“We feel like they were putting effort on their end,” Lehman said of the nonlethals deployed by the ranchers in the OPT area. “We do realize though that not everything is working. The department is going to start looking at new ways to manage or address the situation.”

Nonlethal deterrents include range riders, fladry (colored string or flags) and foxlights (automated lights that flash randomly). In the tree-dense mountains of the Colville National Forest where cattle roam freely on certain allotments, flady and foxlights aren’t particularly effective. Instead, range riding is seen as the best option. But range riding is hard work, requiring riders figure out where the cattle are and regularly patrol that area, thus scaring wolves away.

“Nobody signs up to work at Fish and Wildlife wanting to kill things and we have people on our end who aren’t happy about it,” Lehman said. “It’s emotional no matter what side you’re on.”

WDFW has its own contracted range riders and the Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative also employs range riders, as does the Colville Tribe and some ranchers.

Jay Shepherd, a former WDFW biologist who founded NEWWCC in 2018, said it can be hard to find dedicated, effective range riders. With multiple groups hiring and assigning range riders to different allotments, it can be “difficult to keep up on whose in and whose out.”

“We’ve had issues with people not really wanting to do it. We’ve had people get injured. The horses get injured,” he said. “Some of them just get tired of being out there away from society. And I don’t blame them.”

Whether range riders were in an area, Shepherd said, is not as important as the larger issue: Once a pack is habituated to eating cattle, it’s hard to break the cycle.

“I don’t know that any amount of riding would stop that,” he said.

Despite the polarized nature of the wolf debate, there are still groups working toward consensus and cohesion. On Monday, NEWWCC board members, a coalition of ranchers, biologists and concerned citizens, met in Republic, Washington. There they discussed how to better advertise the cooperation and good-faith efforts that do exist in wolf country.

“Right now (the conversation) is, ‘Should we have wolves or should we have ranchers?’ ” said Daniel Curry, a range rider for NEWWCC who attended Monday’s meeting. “Well, I think we should have both.”

Since 2008, when wolves naturally returned to Washington after being reintroduced in Yellowstone, the population has grown an average of 28% per year.

A minimum of 126 wolves, 27 packs and 15 breeding pairs were counted by WDFW during their annual winter survey. Research by the University of Washington indicates that the wolf population could be much higher. Wolves are protected by state endangered species rules in the eastern third of the state, while they remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state.