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.
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.