The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched a poaching investigation after two Stevens County deputies stumbled upon four dead wolves in Northeast Washington while on snowmobile patrol near the Canadian border on Feb. 8.
Some environmental groups are raising the alarm with at least one claiming the animals were poisoned, although they haven’t offered any evidence to support that allegation.
“Officer (Jen) Stearns and I at first thought maybe Fish and Wildlife had done a helicopter hunt to thin the numbers, but there was no blood we could see or bullet holes,” wrote deputy Henry Stroisch in a police statement provided to The Spokesman-Review by several regional environmental groups. “The final three wolves appeared to be more recent (guessing less than two weeks). There were no new snowmobile tracks to indicate recent travel.”
The wolves were in the Wedge Pack territory, in northern Stevens County above Churchill Mine Road on Forest Service Road 180. Upon returning to the Sheriff’s Office, Stroisch contacted WDFW, although he never heard back, according to his statement.
“The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is aware of and actively investigating dead wolves found in Stevens County,” statewide wolf coordinator Julia Smith said in a statement. “Because this incident is under active investigation by law enforcement, no further information is being provided at this time.”
Rumors of the deaths have been swirling in Eastern Washington for months, even coming up several times during WDFW commission meetings. On Wednesday, several environmental organizations released a statement regarding the deaths. In its statement, the Kettle Range Conservation Group claimed the wolves were poisoned.
“WDFW is often criticized for its lack of transparency around wolf management,” said Chris Bachman, a director with the Kettle Range Conservation Group, in a statement. “I understand they likely have an investigation ongoing, but why the opacity? Why not engage the public and try to garner information? Three months have passed and the trail is now cold. There may be federal crimes involved, what is happening to bring the perpetrators to justice?”
According to WDFW’s April wolf report, only one wolf had been found dead in the state. Claire Davis, a Seattle lawyer and partner in the law firm Animal & Earth Advocates, accused of WDFW of lying in these reports and during public meetings.
“I think it’s very hard to make a believable argument that it has been necessary to lie to the public for three months for the benefit of the investigation,” she said.
The Wedge Pack was first confirmed as a pack in 2012. That same year, WDFW killed all members of the pack following repeated attacks on livestock from the Diamond M Ranch. Wolves repopulated the area in subsequent years. In 2020, WDFW again killed all members of the pack following livestock attacks. As of December, WDFW estimated there were nine wolves in the pack.
Since wolves naturally returned to Washington state in 2008, there have been a number of confirmed poaching cases, although arrests and prosecutions are rare.
In May 2021, a female wolf that had pups was illegally killed in Northeast Washington near the Sheep Creek area of Stevens County. The female died of a gunshot wound, according to a WDFW necropsy. The wolf was believed to be the breeding female from the Wedge Pack. No charges or arrests have been made in that poaching case.
In 2019, a wolf was poached near the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, also in Stevens County. There has been no conviction in that case despite reward money totaling $10,000.
In two other cases, one poaching suspect was prosecuted in 2015, but the case was dismissed. And in 2016, a Palouse farmer was prosecuted, found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine.