A ranch employee shot and killed a wolf chasing cattle near Sprague Lake on Monday, about 40 miles southwest of Spokane where there are no documented packs.
He was checking on cattle in northeastern Adams County near the end of Sprague Lake, when he saw cattle running from three wolves.
When he yelled at the wolves, two stopped and retreated. The third, an adult female, continued the chase, said Donny Martorello, the wolf policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The employee then shot and killed the wolf. One of the owners of the ranch, who wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said the ranch hasn’t had problems with wolves in the past.
“The wolves are going to have to learn to live with us,” the rancher said. “We’re going to do our best to get along with everything, but we run a ranch. We have thousands of heads of cattle.”
The shooting has been deemed lawful by a preliminary investigation, according to Martorello. Although the Washington wolf plan does not allow private citizens to kill wolves, a subsequent WDFW commission rule allows for the killing of wolves caught in the act of attacking cattle, Martorello said.
“In areas of Washington where wolves are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, WAC 220-440-080 states the owner of domestic animals (or an immediate family member, agent, or employee) may kill one gray wolf without a permit issued by the WDFW director if the wolf is attacking their domestic animals,” according to a WDFW news release.
The caught-in-the-act rule has been used twice before, once in summer 2017 on the Smackout Pack and once in November 2017 on the Togo Pack, Martorello said.
The Center for Biological Diversity claims the killing is illegal and unnecessary.
“The shooting of this wolf is outrageous and saddening, and part of a troubling pattern of wolf-killing in Washington,” Amaroq Weiss, the center’s West Coast wolf advocate, said in an emailed statement. “A shot fired over the wolf’s head could have instead scared it away.”
The state’s 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management plan defines attacking “as biting, wounding, or killing; not just chasing or pursuing.”
Martorello said the WAC supersedes the wolf plan. The WAC does not define what attacking means.
“Washington state law allows people to shoot wolves that are caught in the act of attacking livestock or pets,” Chase Gunnell, communications director of Conservation Northwest, said in an email. “As difficult as situations like this are, we support this policy as a reasonable component of responsible wolf conservation and management.”
Martorello said the ranchers check on their cows daily. The cows in question were in an 800-acre pasture and the ranch runs a controlled calving operation.
The state wolf plan guidelines define a wolf pack as two or more animals traveling together in the winter, Martorello said. Agency officials will be following up to see if they can document additional tracks or sightings (either in person or by camera).
“It’s very suggestive of a formation of a pack,” he said.
In 2014, a wolf killed sheep near Lamont, south of Sprague.
Chris Bachman, wildlife program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council, said the Sprague area is not great wolf habitat.
“It would seem that it’s just sort of a fluke pass-through,” he said. “It’s really hard for me to imagine that area would become a territory that a pack would stay in.”
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is close and boasts both great habitat and a great prey source.
However, for the past two years there have been five cameras set up throughout the refuge to document elk, said Mike Rule, Turnbull’s wildlife biologist. No wolves have been spotted.
“You would just think that if there was one or two or three running around on a regular basis, someone would have seen one,” he said. “It could be in the near future we may end up seeing something here. As of now, nothing.”
If a pack is confirmed, Bachman said the Lands Council and others groups would hope to work with ranchers to put in place nonlethal deterrents such as fladry and fox lights.
According to the latest WDFW estimate, there are a minimum of 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs statewide. That estimate was reported nearly a year ago.
That number is likely much higher. University of Washington researchers, using scat-sniffing dogs, said the number of wolves in the state could be closer to 200.
That minimum number has been criticized by wolf activists and ranchers alike. In the winter, WDFW staff fly in airplanes counting wolves to come to the minimum count.
“What we do know is tried and trued methodology that we’ve adopted from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and from other Western states,” Martorello said.
But as the number of wolves grows, the agency may consider a different methodology.
“As the numbers increase, it’s more challenging to count every wolf,” he said.
For several years, Hank Seipp has independently tried to confirm the existence of wolves in the West Plains area. In 2016 and 2017, he caught wolves on trail cameras on Mount Spokane. He’s placed numerous trail cameras throughout the Cheney and Sprague areas but hasn’t seen a wolf, although he has found paw prints and scat he believes came from wolves.
He said ranchers in the area need to stop disposing of dead cattle in open pits. That disposal method is common throughout the West Plains. Seipp hopes ranchers in the area can be reimbursed for the cost of preventive practices.
“Do they have the financial ability to do this? No,” he said. “And the community should be stepping up.”
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. That policy was developed in 2016 by WDFW and its 18-member Wolf Advisory Group, which represents the concerns of environmentalists, hunters and livestock ranchers.
The policy also stipulates that cattle producers must have employed at least two proactive deterrence techniques. Lethal control is allowed in the eastern third of the state where wolves are protected by state endangered species rules. Wolves remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state.