During Washington’s early years of wolf recovery, social conflict between people with different perspectives and values has increased dramatically. There are some using this conflict for a broader agenda, not attempting to reduce the polarization. Many others with various perspectives concerning wolf recovery are spending significant time and resources sincerely attempting to work together.
The decade or so that wolves have been making their way back into Washington from surrounding states and provinces has been a bumpy ride for wolves, ranchers, agencies, advocates and others. Wolves have injured and killed multiple cattle and sheep, leading to costly and controversial lethal removals of wolves since 2012. In northeastern Washington, the wolf population has grown significantly and exceeded the regional recovery goals for Eastern Washington for some time. The two other regional recovery zones in the northern and southern Cascades must meet similar goals for a change in statewide management status. However, we are working on potential paths forward, paths that include both cattle and wolves.
For years many ranchers and conservation partners in northeastern Washington have applied preventative deterrence methods to reduce wolf-cattle conflicts, conflicts that have led to both dead cattle and dead wolves. The use of deterrence methods, especially range riding or human presence, to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts has grown. This part of the story – collaboration, work and stress – hasn’t made it out to the general public. It’s a story about hard work, tough conversations, and eventual trust and friendships. Not sensational but it’s a remarkable story that needs telling.
Many hardworking ranching families in northeastern Washington strive to co-exist with wildlife, including wolves. Wolf recovery has added costs, work and stress to ranching. Any acceptance of wolf recovery in rural Washington depends on reducing financial impacts and stress on ranching families. If the entire financial burden of implementing practical wolf deterrence methods is placed on ranchers, there will be less use of deterrence methods, and most likely less collaboration. We believe both practical deterrence methods and collaboration help ranchers and wolves in the long run.
The Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative is helping with the cost of nonlethal wolf deterrence efforts and also attempting to learn methods from folks in other states who have lived with wolves for much longer than Washington. The collaborative strives to be effective and efficient in the use of nonlethal wolf mitigation methods, and implement strategies designed to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts such as low-stress livestock handling and herd management. Some methods have been learned from friends in Montana. such as the Tom Miner Association and the Blackfoot Challenge. The collaborative also shares range riders and equipment with the community. Lessons learned and knowledge gained concerning raising cattle in wolf country are shared with our livestock-producing community. Participation and membership in the collaboration is opt-in, just a friendly hand.
We all need to ask what should wolf recovery look like in Washington? In five years? In 10 years? Do we want continual upheaval and a growing cultural divide between Eastern and Western Washington, or do we want rural acceptance of wolves on the landscape and urban acceptance of wolf management including protection of cattle?
We believe the majority of Washingtonians want a sustainable ranching community and a recovered, stable wolf population. Therefore, we will see wolf-livestock conflict; namely livestock killed by wolves and the removal of offending wolves. We and others are committed to searching for methods to reduce both the numbers of dead cattle and wolves. We don’t want to force change, but we do believe as a wildlife species, wolves are unique in their ability to negatively affect livestock producers. We feel that this means herd management practices that are better adapted to protect cattle from wolves and, when necessary, targeted and efficient lethal removal of wolves both are warranted.
If we communicate, look for common ground, embrace cooperation, are willing to adapt, there is a path forward.
Rep. Joel Kretz is a member of the Washington House of Representatives, representing the 7th Legislative District. Jay Shepherd is Wolf Program Lead with Conservation Northwest.