State wildlife officials have determined that six wolves found dead in Stevens County in February had been poisoned.
The news was announced Monday during the state’s September wolf report briefing.
It’s the first official confirmation that the wolves were poisoned. However, rumors of the deaths, including allegations of poisoning, had been circulating since the wolves were found in February. At that time, two Stevens County deputies stumbled upon four dead wolves in northeast Washington while on snowmobile patrol near the Canadian border. Subsequently, officials found two more dead wolves in the same area. The wolves were in the Wedge Pack territory, in northern Stevens County above Churchill Mine Road on Forest Service Road 180.
Several conservation groups obtained copies of the initial police report and shared them with The Spokesman-Review in May. The groups publicly criticized the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for not publicizing the case.
Gray wolves are listed as endangered under state law throughout Washington. In the western two-thirds of the state, they are also listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Under state law, the illegal killing of a wolf or other endangered fish or wildlife species is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Julia Smith, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf policy lead, defended the agency’s decision in an interview Friday.
“From my experience, the only thing that leads to convictions is evidence, and the only thing that leads to evidence is a sound investigation,” she said. “WDFW chose to withhold information in this case to put law enforcement in the best position possible to carry out their investigation. We all want to see poachers brought to justice.”
More details of the deaths, including the type of poison used, were not available. Smith also emphasized that while the poaching is tragic and is being investigated rigorously, the state’s overall wolf population continues to grow.
“The documented mortality and undocumented mortality has not prevented the wolf population from experiencing significant increases each year,” she said.
As for what, if anything, the poaching says about social and political acceptance of wolves in Washington, Smith said all she could do was speculate.
That being said, it’s been a busy year for wolf policy in Washington and the West. In February, the federal government relisted gray wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington, reversing a January 2021 decision to delist gray wolves nationwide.
Later in 2022 the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 not to adopt new wolf management rules. Meanwhile, Oregon continued to investigate the poisoning of eight wolves in the eastern part of the state.
“I don’t have any solid reasoning to tie this event to one thing,” Smith said. “Were they copy-catting Oregon? Were they responding to the rule making? Where they responding to Endangered Species Act listing? Was this something that happened before and we simply haven’t documented it? That’s where my brain goes and I can’t say for certain that any one of these is true.”
Eight regional and national conservation groups offered reward money totaling $51,100 on Monday for the conviction of the poachers.
“This is a tragic, unnecessary loss to our state’s endangered wolf population. This cowardly act flies in the face of committed efforts from biologists, policymakers and ranchers working to recover and coexist with wolves in Washington,” said Zoe Hanley, the northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Hanley also called for Washington to implement a statewide anti-poaching campaign, similar to ones in Idaho and other Western states. Defenders is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to a conviction.
“We understand these investigations can take months to solve, and we respect the investigation process as long as WDFW is taking these wildlife crimes seriously,” she said. “However, we are looking for opportunities to engage and notify the public sooner.”
The poaching, and the delayed announcement from WDFW, destroys trust and sets back coexistence efforts, said Chris Bachman, a director with the Kettle Range Conservation Group.
“Here is my concern: We found six. It’s hard for me to believe that we found them all,” he said. “There are a lot of good people in northeast Washington making a lot of good effort to coexist. And stuff like this leads to the perception that this is what everyone feels up there and it’s not what everyone feels up there.”
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.
Infrequent poaching during a steady return
Since wolves naturally returned to Washington in 2008, following introductions in Yellowstone National Park and southern Idaho, there have been a handful 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.
There were a minimum of 206 wolves and 33 packs in Washington state in 2021, according to an annual survey conducted by state and tribal biologists. The wolf population has grown each year since 2008, although the majority of wolves remain in Eastern Washington which has prevented statewide delisting.
Clarification: The federal government relisted gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act in February 2022 after being ordered to do so by a federal district court.
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