Judge rejects effort to temporarily halt killing of wolves

Gray wolf (File photo)


SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A Washington state judge on Friday rejected efforts to temporarily block the killing of wolves that are preying on livestock in Ferry County.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy turned down a request from a conservation group for a temporary restraining order to block the killing.

The Center for Biological Diversity contended that killing wolves ignores science, causes long-term environmental harm and goes against the wishes of the great majority of state residents.

“We’re disappointed this kill order remains in place but we’re hopeful the courts will eventually stop this tragic string of state-sanctioned wolf killings,” said Amaroq Weiss, wolf advocate for the center.

She said Washington had a “trigger-happy approach to wolf management.”

It was not immediately clear when the wolf hunts would begin.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday approved killing one or more members of a new wolf pack that had attacked cattle near the Canadian border in northeast Washington. Wolves had killed a calf and injured five others on federal grazing land in Ferry County since Sept. 4, the agency said.

The new wolf pack has been dubbed the Old Profanity Territory Pack because the attacks occurred in an area once occupied by the Profanity Peak pack. The Profanity Peak pack was killed by the state in 2016 for preying on cattle.

Wolves were killed off in Washington early in the last century. But the animals started returning to the state early in this century from Idaho and Canada. There are at least 122 wolves in 22 packs in the state, according to the latest annual survey.

The agency contends that killing off some or all of the new pack will not harm recovery efforts.

Wolves are protected as an endangered species throughout the state. But a protocol developed by the agency and others to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock allows the state to kill wolves if officials confirm a certain number of livestock attacks within a certain time period.

The state has killed a total of 19 wolves in recent years, including a member of the Togo pack earlier this month.

Washington State to Kill More Wolves in Ferry County

by Evan Bush / Seattle Times
Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind announced plans Wednesday for the agency (WDFW) to kill at least one of the wolves reportedly responsible for a recent rash of attacks on cattle in Ferry County, according to a department news release.
It’s the second time this year that WDFW has resorted to killing wolves as confrontations between the animals and cattle continue to bedevil the agency responsible for the canine species’ recovery in Washington state. A WDFW marksman earlier this month shot and killed a member of the Togo wolf pack, which was also preying on Ferry County cattle. Two conservation organizations filed a legal challenge over the agency’s decision about the Togo wolf. That lawsuit is ongoing.
WDFW will not be able to kill members of the new wolf pack until Thursday afternoon, and new legal challenges loom. Amaroq Weiss, a wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization will seek a temporary restraining order to prevent the killing.
The wolf pack WDFW plans to target has tried to prey on cattle six times this month on federal grazing lands, killing one calf and injuring five others, according to WDFW. The pack, which was first identified by the department in May, is so new it does not have an official name. The agency believes the pack is made up of three or four adult wolves and two pups. WDFW biologists were able to collar the new pack’s adult male earlier this summer.
The wolf pack is living in the Kettle River Range, the same area that the Profanity Peak Pack once occupied. WDFW killed the members of the Profanity Peak Pack in 2016. Last year, the agency also targeted the Sherman Pack nearby.
Because it’s the third year in a row the agency intends to kill wolves in the area, some conservation organizations, including those that have supported lethal removal in the past, wonder if it’s time to try something new.
“It’s a really highly desirable landscape for wolves to be in. They keep coming back,” said Paula Sweeden, policy director for Conservation Northwest. She said the area is thickly forested, steep and often roadless. Cattle there are widely dispersed, which makes it difficult for range riders to keep track of them.
Sweeden said it was clear that the nonlethal methods employed by ranchers to prevent wolves from preying on cattle were clearly not working, but killing wolves there was not working, either.
“Three times in the same place indicates that combination is not working,” she said. “We want to call for a step back.”

Yellowstone’s wolves are back, but they haven’t restored the park’s ecosystem. Here’s why.


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming – Yellowstone’s wolves are back, helping revive parts of the ecosystem that changed drastically when this top-of-the-food-chain predator was killed off nearly a century ago. But Yellowstone is still not 100% back to normal – and it may never be.

“You put the predator back, that’s great, but conditions have changed so much in the intervening decades that putting the predator back is not enough to restore the ecosystem,” said Tom Hobbs, a Colorado State University ecology professor. “There’s not a quick fix for mistakes like exterminating apex predators.”

It’s a sign of both the promise – and the limitations – of a multi-decade wildlife recovery effort. The reintroduction of the wolf nearly 25 years ago to the country’s first national park has brought change: Overpopulated elk herds have thinned, allowing some willow and aspen groves to return and thereby creating better habitat for songbirds and beavers.

But even as this ecosystem shows signs of recovery, a complete restoration is nowhere to be found.

“In some places, I don’t expect a full recovery of the ecosystem,” said Bill Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, who started working in Yellowstone in 1997. “It’s going to be a mixed bag for the longer term now in coming decades.”

Yellowstone’s vanishing wolves

The park radically changed after humans exterminated the gray wolf from Yellowstone in the mid-1920s due to predator control efforts. Elk herds ballooned over the next 70 years, overgrazing vast tracts of land and trees such as willow and aspen. Fewer trees sent the songbird population into decline. Beavers lost their food source and the lumber to build their dams. The lack of those dams caused streams to erode, making them deeper and not as wide and further degrading the conditions willow need to grow.

Today, nearly 25 years after wolves were reintroduced into the park, the top predators have helped parts of the ecosystem bounce back. They’ve significantly reduced elk herds, opening the door for willow, aspen, beaver and songbird populations to recover. But the wolves haven’t been a silver bullet for the ecosystem as a whole.

“This idea that wolves have caused rapid and widespread restoration of the ecosystem is just bunk,” Hobbs said. “It’s just absolutely a fairytale.”

More about the park: Breathtaking Yellowstone sparkles in the off-season

Going to the park?: 10 tips to make the most of your visit

‘You don’t know what you’ve got here’: Why Yellowstone is one unique national park

Yellowstone’s partial recovery has set off a heated debate in academia over how much bringing back an apex predator, such as the wolf, can help restore a devastated ecosystem. It’s one with consequences stretching from the U.S. to India and Africa, where naturalists have pinned their hopes on keeping fragile ecosystems as intact as possible by avoiding the elimination of lions, tigers, sharks and other top predators.

“Maintaining intact ecosystems may be easier than fixing them after you’ve lost some of the parts,” Hobbs said.

Fewer elk, more songbirds

Most ecologists agree that Yellowstone has rebounded some. When Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park’s wolf biologist, first arrived in 1994 shortly before wolves were reintroduced, some willow and aspen trees only came up to his knees. “Now I can’t see through it,” he said. “It’s like a forest.”

But the trees aren’t coming back in every corner of the park: In many spots willow groves haven’t returned. Because willows need beaver to keep the streams from eroding and beavers need the willows to build their dams, it’s rather hard for both to come back simultaneously and in large numbers, said Hobbs, whose team has been conducting a long-term willow growth study in the park for 17 years.

The decrease in elk hasn’t allowed willows to recover because the streams changed significantly when wolves were absent.

“It doesn’t really matter very much whether they’re being browsed or not. They don’t have adequate habitat to thrive,” Hobbs said. “The conditions that changed while wolves were absent created conditions that made it very difficult to restore willows.”

Grizzly population rebound

It’s not all about the wolves, even if they get the most attention. Over the past several decades, the number of other carnivores like the grizzly bear and mountain lion have also climbed, multiplying the impact of the top predators on the ecosystem.

“As a scientist, the challenge is to figure out how much ecological change since wolf reintroduction is attributable to wolves and how much of that change is due to other forces,” said Dan MacNulty, an associate professor at Utah State University who studies the ecology of wolves and elk in the park.

How large the wolf’s impact on the Yellowstone ecosystem is difficult to tease out in part because of nature’s complexity and capacity for frequent change, he said. But money also plays a large role: It is difficult to adequately monitor all the potential drivers of change when funding for long-term research is so limited, he said.

“One of the grand challenges in ecology is to understand the consequences of predator removal and restoration in large-scale systems like Yellowstone. But the resources aren’t there. That really limits our power to know what’s going on,” he said. “A key reason why there’s so much scientific disagreement is that we haven’t been able to take all the necessary measurements over a long enough time and over a large enough number of organisms to come up with a more definitive answer.”

Despite all the disagreement, most ecologists say removing predators today would be a mistake.

“The way ecosystems put themselves back together after such a problem is still something that scientists are trying to understand,” Ripple said. “The lesson is let’s not let things get as bad as they did with 70 years without wolves.”

But there’s an even broader question that needs to be addressed: Can we restore apex predators and coexist with them?

“There’s not many places in the rest of the United States where this is happening,” Smith said. “There are lessons here that we can do this on human-dominated landscapes in other places, but I don’t know because it might involve more wolves, cougars and bears, and right there you have a problem because people have trouble living with those three carnivores.”

Washington wildlife agency gets green light to kill cattle-hunting wolf


Washington state government marksmen now have clearance to go out this weekend to shoot a wolf from a pack that has been preying on cattle in the Colville National Forest. A judge on Friday declined to extend a temporary stay on the killing won by several environmental groups last week.

Lawyers for the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands were back in Thurston County Superior Court Friday morning seeking a longer injunction. They wanted to prevent the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from killing members of the Togo wolf pack.

“There is a high burden that has to be met,” said Judge Carol Murphy in issuing a denial from the bench. “That burden has not been met at this time.”

The new Department of Fish and Wildlife director, Kelly Susewind, watched from the back of the courtroom. After the ruling, he said he was “glad” the agency can proceed.

Still, inside and outside court Friday, the wildlife agency faced questions about the necessity of hunting down the male wolf, given that he is already limping from an existing bullet wound in a rear leg and probably not currently a threat to livestock.

“In order to change pack behavior, it’s still appropriate to lethally remove the collared male,” Susewind said in an interview.

The West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity predicted the disruption of the pack structure from killing its leader could increase — not decrease — problems for ranchers in the mountains near the Canadian border.

“In killing that wolf, that leaves his mate on her own to hunt and feed herself and her two pups,” said Amaroq Weiss. “If she’s hunting by herself, she’s not going to be able to take a big, wild prey animal like an elk down by herself. The most vulnerable prey that is in the area is livestock. So this may actually exacerbate the conflicts and result in more livestock losses, which no one wants.”

Weiss called the courtroom outcome “a tragic result” for the wolf, his pups and mate.

Susewind’s authorization to take lethal measures against one or more members of the Togo pack came after the pack preyed on cattle on six separate occasions in the Kettle River Range since last November.

Late last week, a cattleman shot and injured the Togo pack male in an incident that remains under investigation by Fish and Wildlife. The rancher told the agency’s staff that he shot in self-defense after encountering the growling wolf, who may have been protecting the pack’s pups.

Environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest other than those that brought the lawsuit are grudgingly going along with killing problem wolves as a last resort policy.

“Lawsuits and polarization haven’t worked out well for wolves elsewhere, so we see little upside in spreading those tactics to Washington, where wolf recovery is going relatively well overall,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Bellingham-based group Conservation Northwest, in a statement critical of the legal challenge.

He said collaboration between conservation groups, government agencies and livestock producers “is leading to less social conflict concerning wolves.” It’s also making ranchers more willing to adopt non-lethal wolf deterrence techniques, Friedman said.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network.

Frustrated northeast Washington politicians meet after judge blocks killing of Togo pack wolves

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 24, 2018, 6:27 p.m.

Politicians and ranchers in northeast Washington are chafing after two environmental groups from outside of the state temporarily blocked the legal killing of members of the Togo wolf pack.

In response, county commissioners from Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties met Friday in Colville.

“The meeting today was to try and develop, I guess, a strategy to go forward figuring out how to give the people in these counties a little bit of relief,” said Stevens County commissioner Don Dashiell.

Commissioners discussed, among other things, taking legal action.

The meeting was held in Colville in advance of a Tri County Economic Development District meeting.

Of particular concern was whether a judge will extend the temporary restraining order blocking the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from killing members of the Togo pack.

The Thurston County judge is scheduled to make a decision next Friday.

“When the judge put the restraining order on the department he didn’t put the restraining order on the wolves,” Dashiell said.

On Monday, WDFW ordered the lethal removal of wolves from the Togo pack in northeast Washington. However, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon-based Cascadia Wildlands filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order to stop the killing. The lawsuit alleges that WDFW “relied upon a faulty protocol and failed to undergo required environmental analysis.”

The lethal removal order came after six documented cattle depredations in the past 10 months by the Togo pack. Three of those cattle kills occurred within the past 30 days. The most recent documented depredation occurred when one or more wolves injured a calf on a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment in Ferry County.

WDFW’s policy allows killing of wolves if they prey on livestock three times in a 30-day period or four times in a 10-month periodThat policy was developed in 2016 by WDFW and its 18-member Wolf Advisory Group, which represents the concerns of environmentalists, hunters and livestock ranchers.

Seattle-based Conservation Northwest decried the lawsuit in a news release Thursday.

“Lawsuits and polarization haven’t worked out well for wolves elsewhere, so we see little upside in spreading those tactics to Washington, where wolf recovery is going relatively well overall” said Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest executive director in a news release. “Instead of polarization, our focus is on collaboration and long-term coexistence.”

All three Ferry and Stevens county commissioners attended the meeting. One Pend Oreille county commissioner also joined, as did state lawmakers, including Rep. Joel Kretz and Rep. Shelly Short.

Ferry County commissioner Johnna Exner said the commissioners are considering legal action and will be working with county prosecutors to see what those options are.

Exner pointed out that the hearing on the temporary restraining order was filed in Thurston County, too far away for any ranchers or northeast politicians to attend.

“It was held way too far away for anyone to even get to the court date,” she said.

The commissioners discussed other ways of alleviating the pressure on ranchers who they say are struggling to stay afloat because of wolf predations, Dashiell said.

One idea floated Friday was for WDFW to trap members of the Togo pack and hold them until the judge rules on whether the wolves can be killed or not.

Dashiell acknowledged that plan likely wouldn’t work.

Another possibility, Exner said, would be if wolves were delisted at the state level which would give the counties more flexibility. Wolves remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state and protected throughout the state under state law.

Exner pointed out that WDFW waited a week before ordering the killing of the wolves. For ranchers the extra time means potentially more dead cows, she said.

“(We need) swifter action on the plan that has already been set,” she said. “Both sides need to follow the plan.”

State will kill members of wolf pack to protect cattle

SPOKANE, Wash. — The state of Washington will take steps to kill members of a wolf pack that have been preying on cattle in the northeast corner of the state.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife says members of the Togo pack have preyed on cattle three times in the past 30 days, and six times in the past 10 months.

In the most recent depredation, state officials say one or more wolves were responsible for injuring a calf on a federal grazing allotment in Ferry County.

The department says it will use humane hunting methods, with likely options including shooting from a helicopter, trapping, and shooting from the ground.

The wolf hunts have sparked controversy in the past, with environmental groups saying the state is too quick to kill wolves.

Hunters down a dozen wolves

Wyoming hunters were successful tracking down and killing smart, stealthy wolves as the season began Sunday.

A dozen wolves were legally harvested in the first 40 hours of the three-month season. It’s a number that amounts to over a quarter of the total wolves that can be killed in the state’s managed hunt area. Wyoming Game and Fish Department carnivore manager Ken Mills attributed the considerable success to the opener falling on a weekend, winter weather pushing lots of sportsmen into the field, and also a species that may temporarily have lost its fear of mankind.

“Three years have gone by since the last hunting season,” Mills said. “In wolf generation time, it’s getting close to an entire generation of wolves. So there’s almost a whole new generation of wolves out there and they’re naive to human hunters.”

“I think they’ll learn over time,” he said. “I would expect them to adapt relatively quickly.”

Wolf hunters found swift success in Upper Green River country, where they exceeded a three-animal quota by one and triggered the closure of the zone Sunday.

Wolves were also killed Sunday and Monday around Jackson Hole. Game and Fish harvest reports showed one wolf killed in area 8, which encompasses the Leidy Highlands and has a quota of seven animals. A hunter also was successful in area 10 southeast of town, which runs from Cache Creek to past Bondurant.

In its “trophy game management area,” Game and Fish is permitting a total of 44 wolves to be killed in a season that ends Dec. 31.

Technically, there is no statewide limit on the number of wolves that can be hunted in Wyoming. That’s because of an expansive area outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where wolves are managed as a predator that can be killed by any means throughout the year. Some 17 wolves, as of Monday afternoon, had been reported killed in that zone since Wyoming gained jurisdiction over its wolf population this spring.

Wolf hunting opened with a relative bang, judging by the pace of harvest in years past.

The state’s first modern-day wolf hunt dates to 2012, a year hunters managed to kill four animals in the first 40 hours of the season, according to the Jackson Hole News&Guide archives. The next year, 2013, hunters shot three on the opener.

There’s been a wolf hunting hiatus in the Equality State ever since, owing to a 2014 court decision that fell a week before the wolf hunting season would have started. Two and a half years later, a U.S. Court of Appeals’ opinion overturned the ruling.

Game and Fish’s intent for the wolf hunt is to slightly reduce the population, last estimated at 380 statewide. A little over half those animals are believed to reside in the trophy game area that just opened to hunting. Another approximately 50 animals were thought to live in the predator zone. The balance of Wyoming’s wolves — an estimated 117 animals — live in Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation, where hunting is not allowed.

It is wolf hunters’ responsibility, Mills said, to check to make sure the hunt area they set out for is still open. Game and Fish has 12 wolf hunting units, and each closes individually as its quotas are met. Harvest reports are updated “constantly,” he said, and posted online at WGFD.wyo.gov.

Mixed-ancestry wolves are recolonizing the Pacific Northwest

Their combination of coastal and inland DNA could help them survive a changing climate.

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems.


Wolves were wiped out in Washington state in the early 20th century — the victims of bounty hunting as ranching and farming expanded in the state. Over the past two decades, however, under the protection of state and federal wildlife authorities, wolves have been reclaiming their former turf. But as new research shows, the wolves now living and hunting in Washington’s forests are different from those that lived there more than a century ago. These new wolves are hybrids — crossbreeds of inland wolves from the interior United States and a unique, beach-loving subspecies from as far north as Southeast Alaska.

The ancestors of the wolves now recolonizing the Pacific Northwest include a coastal subspecies.
Chris Darimont / raincoast.org

The researchers who made this discovery think the hybrid wolves’ DNA could help them thrive in a changing landscape.

Conventional wisdom holds that the wolf packs slowly recolonizing not only Washington but Oregon and California are the descendants of animals that migrated west from the interior — from the mountains, plains, and forests of Montana and Idaho. But when researchers analyzed DNA samples from wolves throughout the Pacific Northwest, the results told a different story. Sarah Hendricks — now a computational biology doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho — was a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles when she and her colleagues amassed genetic samples from the region’s wolves. A recent analysis shows that some of the wolves have unique genetic markers that could have only come from the distinct coastal wolves of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

Coastal wolves differ from their interior cousins in a number of important ways. Unlike interior wolves, which stalk large mammals such as elk through forests and fields, coastal wolves spend much of their time on beaches, hunting salmon and marine mammals such as seals. Coastal wolves also look different — they’re smaller and their fur has a red-brown tinge.

So far, the hybrid wolves are sticking to the lifestyle of their ancestors from the east. “As of right now, the wolf packs are mostly in the habitat that’s suitable for interior wolves, but we think over time they’ll begin to establish in habitat that’s more suitable for coastal wolves,” says Hendricks. As the climate continues to change, Hendricks suspects the hybrid wolves’ genetic diversity will allow them to adapt better than if they just had genes from interior wolves.

Even without the benefits of genetic mixing, wolves are generally quite adaptable animals, says Jay Shepherd, who leads the wolf program for the nonprofit organization Conservation Northwest. In Yellowstone Park, for instance, wolves hunt bison. These wolves are much larger than those in surrounding regions, but their size is the consequence of a diet driven by learned behavior rather than genetics. Still, he agrees that hybrids could have an advantage in areas with a mix of habitats.

The coastal wolves of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska are a distinctive subpopulation with red-brown fur and a hunting style adapted to coastal life.
Chris Darimont / raincoast.org

The finding also offers a life preserver of a sort to the coastal wolves of British Columbia and Alaska, whose populations are dwindling in many parts of their range. For example, Hendricks points to a population in Southeast Alaska that is declining quite drastically. The hybrids may serve as a genetic reservoir, protecting some of the coastal wolves’ distinctive traits.

But while the hybrid wolf population may act as a reservoir, there could be complications if the Alaskan coastal wolves became protected under the United States Endangered Species Act. In that case, wildlife managers in the Pacific Northwest would find themselves charged with managing wolves that share genetic traits with federally protected animals. “The problem is that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t have a lot of language regarding how to deal with hybridization,” says Hendricks.

Hendricks hopes her findings will inspire biologists and policymakers to focus on sorting out the unanswered legal question of what should be done when the ancestor of a hybrid animal is an endangered species, whether these mixed-lineage descendants should be protected as well or left vulnerable to hunting and habitat loss. Either way, she thinks the hybrid wolves’ mixed heritage will be an asset as they continue to reclaim their species’ old haunts across the Pacific Northwest.

WDFW backtracks on shutting down wolf-tracking data

Fish and Wildlife’s new director says he heard “loud and clear” ranchers want GPS coordinates of wolves, especially during grazing season.

Don JenkinsCapital Press

Published on August 14, 2018 9:01AM

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind, left, addresses the Fish and Wildlife Commission Aug. 10 in Olympia as Deputy Director Joe Stohr listens. Susewind, barely a week on the job, canceled a plan to withhold wolf-collar data from ranchers.


Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind, left, addresses the Fish and Wildlife Commission Aug. 10 in Olympia as Deputy Director Joe Stohr listens. Susewind, barely a week on the job, canceled a plan to withhold wolf-collar data from ranchers.

Washington wildlife managers have canceled for now a plan to withhold the exact locations of radio-collared wolves from ranchers.

Fish and Wildlife had planned to switch off the GPS data this week in favor of a new system that more generally shows wolfpack movements. The department’s new director, Kelly Susewind, said he heard from producers concerned about the change, especially during summer grazing when livestock are most exposed to wolf attacks.

“We pretty quickly came to the consensus that this is not ready for prime time,” Susewind told the Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting Friday in Olympia. “We heard loud and clear — don’t be switching things up in the middle of a grazing season.”

Fish and Wildlife shares collar data with ranchers who agree to keep the information confidential. A month ago, the department introduced a system that quickly became known as the “blue blob.” The department said the new method of depicting pack movements will be more useful than knowing the recent locations of wolves with collars. The department also said GPS coordinates could be misused to track wolves to dens in the spring and where pups are later stashed for the summer.

The department planned to stop sharing GPS coordinates Aug. 14. Susewind said it was the top issue when he went to northeast Washington and met with producers, county commissioners and state lawmakers.

“We had long talks about wolves, and it was absolutely universal, every single person we talked to, this was their biggest concern, the switch in data-sharing,” he said.

The department still believes the blue blob can help ranchers, he said. The department will review its data-sharing policy over the winter.

“We recognize we need to work with people. We need to make sure they understand it, and we need to make sure we’ve adjusted it so it works for everybody,” Susewind said.

The introduction of the blue blob on July 16 was another friction point between ranchers and wildlife managers. The department had planned to continue sharing the collar data for only 30 more days while ranchers learned the new system.

Cattle Producers of Washington President Scott Nielsen said he was pleased Susewind, barely a week on the job, reversed the department’s course.

“I think that was a very good sign,” Nielsen said. “All it was doing was limiting the information, and the notion of limiting information on this issue was incredibly misguided.”

The Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed with Susewind. Earlier in the meeting, Stevens County rancher Jeff Dawson told the commission that collar data was “probably the most important tool for dealing with wolves.”

“We’re not out there to track the wolves, but we are out there to try to manage where the cattle are (in relation) to the wolves,” he said.

The GPS coordinates are better than the new system for minimizing conflicts, Dawson said.

“The original information is what’s working the best for us,” he said. “What was added, maybe in the department’s mind was to make it better, but it’s not making it better.”

Interagency talks continue on wildlife encounter protocols

County follows up on controversial wolf incident response

By Ann McCreary

Since they first made their presence in Washington known 10 years ago, gray wolves have been a source of controversy. When multiple agencies became involved in a recent encounter between wolves and a human, the result was confusion, frustration and mistrust.

Last month, a U.S. Forest Service employee who was working in a remote area of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest encountered wolves. When the animals would not leave after she yelled and sprayed pepper spray at them, she climbed a tree and used a satellite phone to contact her supervisor. She was taken from the area by a helicopter that was dispatched to retrieve her.

By the time the incident was over — a period of about an hour — it involved the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the Forest Service Tonasket Ranger District, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Okanogan County commissioners.

The way the situation was handled didn’t sit well with Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers, who said he felt wildlife agencies involved in the incident interfered with the sheriff’s responsibility to protect human safety. Representatives of several agencies involved met with Okanogan County commissioners recently to review the incident. The session lasted almost two hours and Commissioner Andy Hover said he plans another meeting on Sept. 10 with a goal of developing a policy to guide future responses to wildlife encounters.

Everyone involved in the incident acknowledged that the event was extremely rare. This is the first reported human/wolf interaction in Washington since the discovery 10 years ago of the Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack — the first pack confirmed in the state since the 1930s.

The Forest Service employee, who has not been identified at her request, was a seasonal worker conducting salmon research about 30 miles north of Winthrop, in an area that is part of the Loup Loup wolf pack territory. Wildlife officials who visited the area after the incident determined that she had approached a rendezvous site, where wolves keep pups until they are old enough to hunt.

Initial responses

The woman called her Forest Service supervisor at shortly after 12:30 p.m. on July 12 and said she had encountered wolves that had refused to leave despite her efforts to scare them away. She reported seeing wolf tracks and heard barking and yipping for some time before the wolves approached.

Her supervisor advised her to find a place where she felt safe, so she climbed a tree, according to FWS officials. The Forest Service contacted the Northeast Washington Interagency Communications Center, a dispatch facility for emergencies on public lands. The center located a DNR helicopter, which was ultimately dispatched to assist the woman.

Okanogan County dispatch also was notified, and Rogers said his office considered it a search and rescue mission. However, he said, in conversations about how to proceed before the helicopter was sent, wildlife agency officials told his office to “stand down” because it was a wildlife issue.

During the meeting with commissioners, Steve Brown, chief deputy for the sheriff’s office, said officials with WDFW told him “absolutely no rotors” because the helicopter could disturb the wolves, which are listed as an endangered species through Washington under state law, and under federal law in that portion of the state.

Donny Martorello, wolf policy lead for WDFW, said state and federal wildlife officials were initially trying to explain to the sheriff’s office that the wolves’ behavior was not aggressive, but defensive, and the woman’s best action would be to back away from the area. However, “when we realized it was a woman calling for help from a satellite phone” they “gave a green light to send a helicopter,” Martorello said.

Rogers said the debate over jurisdiction and appropriate response meant that the response to the woman’s call was delayed by at least 20 minutes. He said he was also frustrated that his deputies didn’t get to interview the woman after she was flown to Omak. “We’re trying to build a working relationship with everybody, and it creates issues when a situation like this happens,” he said.

Good outcome, bad process

“The outcome [of the incident] was good,” said Hover. “It was the initial process that was bad. I’ve seen transcripts of communications and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Brad Thompson, deputy state supervisor for FWS, apologized “on behalf of our program” and said “there is room for improvement on how Fish and Wildlife worked with the sheriff in the field. And there is room for improvement on educating people about the ‘newcomer’ [wolves] on the landscape,” Thompson said. “We don’t have enough experience with incidences of public safety and wolves.”

Hover said last week that he has been in touch with Thompson about developing policies and protocols to guide any future incidents involving wildlife, especially those protected under state law or under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“I think the federal ESA listings, when you get people on the ground, they get nervous when they try to make a decision,” Hover said. “The people on the ground have to have a clear policy from up above that says human life is more important than a federally listed species.”

Hover said wolves are relatively new to Washington and many people, even those experienced in the outdoors, don’t expect to encounter them and don’t know how to respond. “Now we have a species that is a pack animal and very territorial when it has pups,” he said. “People are not familiar with wolves. We need more information.”

Matt Reidy, ranger of the Tonasket Ranger District, where the incident occurred, said his district is in contact with WDFW and FWS about wolves and other wildlife on Forest Service lands. Two wolves in the Loup Loup pack are collared, and WDFW is able to collect data on their locations, which it shares with the district, Reidy said.

He said the district would have informed the woman conducting research that “there may be wolves in that location where you are working” if she had checked at the ranger district before heading into the field, but she did not. “Not that it’s a danger, just for general awareness,” Reidy said.

Normally people heading into the field for work, research or volunteer activities like trail maintenance check in to ask about hazards like washouts or blowdowns, Reidy said. “Unfortunately, this employee didn’t do that, she just went out into the woods and was doing her job. Since then I’ve had a conversation with her supervisor and that protocol has changed,” he said. The woman lives in another state, Reidy said.

Reidy said his district is preparing new brochures for the public that describe how to behave during encounters with bears, cougars and wolves. “Anybody traveling to the national forests should have a general awareness. We’re at the point where Idaho and Montana were 10 years ago. The general public has always had the opportunity to potentially see black bears and mountain lions, now they have the opportunity to potentially see a wolf.”

Hover said representatives of wildlife and law enforcement agencies will be invited to participate in further discussion of policies and coordination for future wildlife incidents on Sept. 10 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the county commissioners’ regular meeting.